Flaws in the System
The Modern Slavery Act 2015 was a seminal piece of legislation for the protection of human rights. For the first time, modern slavery received widespread public attention. Unfortunately, however, later developments slowed the pace of change, to the extent that the support that victims of modern slavery receive is piecemeal and insufficient to help them rebuild their lives. Now, when a person escapes slavery in the UK and enters the National Referral Mechanism (NRM, the system created by the 2015 Act to identify and support victims of modern slavery), they are given 90 days in the “reflection and recovery period”.
At present, 90 days are all slavery victims receive to rebuild their lives (and this is after a recent extension from the previous 45 days). Recent reforms to the NRM are encouraging, but do not offer victims the full protection needed. Ninety days is simply not enough time to rebuild their lives, particularly not after having been engulfed in an all-consuming vacuum of slavery for months, maybe years. It is unlikely, for example, that an application for the discretionary leave to remain in the UK would be processed in 90 days. So, there develops an increased risk of homelessness or being re-trafficked if a victim falls out of the system prior to being able to secure their future. Ninety days was never supposed to be written in stone as the determinative period of support; it is a stop-gap at best.
The Modern Slavery (Victim Support) Bill: Purpose and Content
The Modern Slavery (Victim Support) Bill, introduced to Parliament in September last year by Lord McColl of Dulwich, was designed to resolve the current problems with the NRM, notably, as the name of the Bill suggests, support for victims.
The two main provisions of the Bill are to provide victims of modern slavery leave to remain in the UK, and be provided with specialist support for up to 12 months beyond the NRM. The Bill would add four new sections to the 2015 Act, placing duties to support victims at the heart of the legislation. The only way to successfully tackle modern slavery is by supporting the victims, and fostering a culture of support and assistance, that will help them lead a life of freedom, and avoid the trappings of being re-trafficked.
Free for Good, the campaign supported by various anti-slavery organisations, set up to mobilise support for the Bill, has identified three main reasons for its passage.
- First, with support for victims significantly improved, there will be more safeguards in place to protect those victims from homelessness, destitution and re-trafficking. The Fresh Start Report by City Hearts found that 76% of victims left the NRM into unknown circumstances; many of them will have ended up homeless. Avoiding this must be a priority.
- Second, enactment of the Bill would give victims a direct, secure pathway to recovery. By enshrining the discretionary leave to remain in law, victims of slavery would be provided with the security that they need to manage a safe recovery. Moreover, there is no suggestion that allowing victims the right to remain in the UK for 12 months would become a “pull” factor for immigrants, as opponents of the Bill might suggest. Instead, and more importantly, giving security to victims would prevent them from fearing entering the NRM in the first place, given the present prospect of deportation if they receive a negative verdict. Put simply, more time allows a smoother recovery.
- Third, unsupported victims of slavery at present find it difficult to act as witnesses in trials against perpetrators of slavery. If there is no guarantee of support, victims are unlikely to feel safe and secure enough to give evidence to police investigations. From the perspective of law enforcement, it is trite to say that those who do not trust the system will be less willing to help the system. Prosecutions, of which there are few for modern slavery offences, will be made more likely when victims trust the system and become more willing to co-operate.
Effect of the Bill for Victims of Modern Slavery
Were the Bill to become legislation, which René Cassin advocates, it will mean that victims of modern slavery will have concrete support for 12 months after leaving the NRM, giving them a stable foundation for recovery. This, for most victims, would be sufficient time to plan their future and reintegration to society, be it in the UK or abroad.
Whilst there would be no obligation on victims to take the entire 12-month recovery period, it would allow a much improved means of recovery for those who have been shaken to the core by their experiences. As Free for Good say, “[f]or victims with lower mental or physical health needs, they need time to gain skills, experience and confidence that will enable them to live a full and integrated life in society.”
A Call to Action
For those who advocate improved care for victims of slavery, or even greater efficiency in prosecuting perpetrators of this heinous crime, it is essential that this Bill is passed by Parliament. The Bill is currently awaiting a date for the committee stage in the House of Lords; securing this date through external pressure on the government is crucial, since the House of Lords cannot instigate its own committee stage.
Once in the House of Commons, the Bill will be sponsored by Frank Field MP. Until that time, it is important that as many people contact their MP as possible, including by emailing them through the Free for Good’s website; the message there urges MPs to support the Bill. At the time of writing, more than 400 MPs have been contacted. The consequent pressure on the prime minister will raise the profile of the Bill, but more must be done.
To ensure that victims of slavery receive the support they deserve and so desperately need, the passage of Lord McColl’s Bill is essential.
If you are concerned about modern slavery in your community, you can contact your local police force on 101 or the Modern Slavery Helpline on 08000 121 700. If in doubt, please report it. There is more information on the National Crime Agency website, here.
*Ben Cartwright is a member of René Cassin’s Modern Slavery Campaign Group, find out more about how to get involved by emailing [email protected]