This piece was originally published by René Cassin.
Buried in last December’s early snow was a report that revealed that the Home Office’s modern slavery strategy is a strategy in name only. Over two years after the implementation of the Modern Slavery Act, this is deeply troubling. The report from the National Audit Office alleged that the Home Office is still struggling with data collection, delays and victim support. Not only have these flaws hampered its goal of ending victims’ suffering, but ineffectiveness has also led to a misguided allocation of resources.
What the NAO’s report demonstrates is a lack of cohesion in central government’s approach to modern slavery. Long tagged as Prime Minister Theresa May’s flagship policy, the reality beneath the slogans is that efforts to tackle trafficking and slavery have been patchy at best. In failing to define what progress would look like, the government has left it to local authorities, NGOs and the media to fill the void.
Far too often, local law enforcement agencies have been left to their own devices, leading to regional discrepancies. Since the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) got off the ground in 2009, three police forces have made more than 900 adult referrals. Over the same period, six forces have referred fewer than 10 potential adult victims each.
Fatal to any attempt to convert local snatches of progress into sustained national change is the erratic quality of the NRM’s data collection. The report’s authors claim that “multiple errors and duplicate entries” make it “difficult to use the data to understand the crime.” Gains go unrecorded; best practice can’t be replicated. Worse still, potential victims slip through the system. Once they’ve gone through the NRM process, nobody keeps track of them. The risks of re-trafficking or reprisals remain unknown. It’s no wonder that Kevin Hyland, the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, is keen to ensure that a centralised digital database is set up.
In this month’s prosecution of nail-bar owners Thu Hong Nguyen and Viet Hoang Nguyen, for instance, two of their teenage victims were known to social services. In February 2016, the two girls aged 17 and 18 were taken into emergency foster care, but they soon ran away and became untraceable. It was later discovered that they had returned to their captors, only to be re-trafficked to a different nail bar.
Despite the fact that the Home Office is trying to digitise its system to improve the accuracy of its data, such a move only addresses part of the problem. Not only do we need more accurate data; we also need more data. For example, a central pillar of the Modern Slavery Act rests on compliance from businesses whose annual turnover exceeds £36 million. The law requires them to publish an annual statement about the steps they’ve taken to remove slavery from their supply chain.
Yet the NAO report suggests that the government hasn’t given this vital provision any teeth to bite with. “While NGOs have compiled registries of statements and undertaken reviews,” it comments, “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.”
It’s hard to imagine that this lack of data doesn’t affect the NRM’s efficiency. Of the 2,527 adult referrals in 2016, the report claimed that 46% had not received a conclusive decision as to whether they were considered victims of modern slavery or human trafficking as of March 2017. As Carita Thomas wrote for Legal Voice in October, delays can take an enormous toll, particularly on those with immigration problems.
The delays don’t stop at the end of the identification process, however. Despite recording 1,707 modern slavery crimes in 2016, prosecutions were completed in only 349 cases. For every case that remains open, the system’s credibility is undermined. And for every case that remains open, a victim has to relive their suffering for longer – without the support they deserve.
That support is threadbare. Much of the work is outsourced to the Salvation Army, but the Home Office neither specifies minimum care standards for safe houses nor oversees their operation. For the purposes of their budget, the Home Office assumes that the average period of support will be just 79 days. However, the NAO’s report claims that in reality the Salvation Army supported victims for an average of 251 days in the year to June 2017, over three times longer than the contract’s assumption. This is one of several areas in which the Home Office “does not know how much is spent on tackling modern slavery across government or how effective that expenditure is.”
Seen in isolation, it’s easy to dismiss such difficulties as the teething problems of a young piece of legislation. But put together, the flaws look serious and interlinked. As 2018 dawns, we need a modern slavery strategy that solves them. We need a strategy that’s more than just a slogan. Otherwise, the year to come will only beg more questions of our own complicity in the wait to end slavery.