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International Day for the Abolition of Slavery

On the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, Liana Wood reflects on what more needs to be done to protect victims of trafficking and forced labour in the UK.

Posted on 02 December 2020

Following an independent review in 2019 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 (‘MSA’), the Home Secretary at the time, Sajid Javid, wrote: “we will continue to mobilise the full force of the state…to ensure we protect and support some of the most vulnerable in society and continue to pursue perpetrators behind these vile crimes”. 

The 2019 review made 80 recommendations to improve the provisions of the MSA.  The government has since consulted and made commitments to act on some of the recommendations.

On 22 September 2020, it was confirmed that the reporting requirements under the Modern Slavery Act 2015 were to be strengthened, by making reporting under key sections of Modern Slavery Statements mandatory for organisations with a budget of £36 million or over.  Modern Slavery Statements will also be required to be published not only on organisations’ own websites but on a new digital governmental reporting service

For many, however, these plans do little to reassure that the government intends substantial strengthening of policy in line with its strong rhetoric of ‘using the full force of the state’.

In response to the 22 September announcement, the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, Dame Sara Thornton welcomed the proposals but said she did not believe that ‘on their own they will clean up supply chains’.   

In 2019, 10,627 potential victims of modern slavery were referred to the National Referral Mechanism (‘NRM’), the official system through which victims are victims are identified.  This was up 52 per cent from the previous year, when 6,986 people were referred to the NRM.   Moreover, these numbers in no way reflect the true scale of the problem: the Global Slavery Index estimated that the number of people living in modern slavery in the UK is in the region of 136,000. 

One issue identified in the 2019 review of the MSA was the difficulties that victims face in accessing legal aid. In March 2020, the Anti Trafficking Monitoring Group (‘ATMG’) reported that much more needs to be done to ensure that victims of trafficking can access justice.  The ATMG gathered evidence on how well the UK was implementing the Council of Europe Convention on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings.   

The report emphasised that the UK was falling short of its obligations as a direct consequence of policy decisions.  Austerity policies had resulted in a systematic lack of funding for trafficking response programmes and cuts to legal aid provision meant there are areas of the country where trafficking survivors were frequently unable to obtain specialist legal advice.  

Crucially, the report also pointed to the government’s commitment to hostile environment policies undermining its stated aim to tackle trafficking, identify victims and support survivors.  

Another recommendation in the 2019 review of the MSA focused on access to compensation for survivors. The Anti-Trafficking and Labour Exploitation Unit (ATLEU) published a report in November 2020 about the barriers survivors of trafficking face in trying to access compensation through the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme (“CICS”).  

CICS is a statutory scheme that exists to compensate victims of violent crime in England, Scotland and Wales.

ATLEU’s report highlights that compensation is vital for survivors of trafficking.  Access to compensation helps protect people from further exploitation and helps to rebuild lives.  Clients have expressed to me feeling unable to express their own wishes and opinions because they have been prevented from doing so for so long.  The difficulties people face in ending cycles of exploitation must not be underestimated.

ATLEU’s report states that there are a number of reasons why CICS is inaccessible, including applications being out of scope for legal aid and there being no guidance dealing specifically with how CICS rules should be interpreted for survivors of trafficking and modern slavery.

As much as politicians talk tough about tackling modern slavery, it continues to thrive amidst weak employment protections, hostile environment policies and an erosion of legal aid.   If the government is serious about tacking modern slavery, it needs to be reflected in policy change.  Policies matter.

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Liana Wood
Modern Slavery

Liana Wood

Liana Wood is an associate solicitor in the employment department.