Human trafficking and modern slavery – UK Government assessment
The UK Government has taken important steps to eradicate, and enhance understanding of, modern slavery and trafficking, such as working to tackle slavery in supply chains. However, changes introduced as part of the Nationality and Borders Act may undermine recent progress. Concerns also remain about the effectiveness of the legal framework and the National Referral Mechanism (NRM). The number of NRM referrals has increased significantly in recent years, but the true scale of modern slavery remains unknown, and prosecution rates are low.
- The Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner has raised concerns that changes introduced as part of the Nationality and Borders Act will make it harder to identify victims of human trafficking and modern slavery, provide effective support to those that need it and bring offenders to justice. The Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner position has been vacant since the end of April 2022 when the former commissioner’s three-year tenure came to an end.
- There is no definitive data source to accurately identify the number of victims of modern slavery in the UK, but estimates from police data indicate there could be at least 100,000 victims each year.
- The NRM has received a growing number of referrals of potential victims of trafficking or modern slavery, although figures remain low compared with the estimated number of victims. There were 12,727 referrals in 2021, representing a 20% increase compared to the preceding year. Of these, 77% were men, 43% were children and 58% claimed exploitation in the UK only.
- In the period 2016–2019 there was an increase in the number of potential child victims of modern slavery and trafficking being referred to the NRM, partly due to a rise in the identification of ‘county lines’ exploitation cases.
- In February 2021, the European Court of Human Rights found that the UK had acted unlawfully by failing to protect two potential child victims of trafficking from prosecution.
- Migrant domestic workers – who are mainly women – remain vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, trafficking and forced labour.
- There are concerns that the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic exacerbated vulnerabilities to child exploitation and worsened factors leading to labour exploitation, with migrant domestic workers at particular risk of destitution.
- Statistics for 2021/22 show the number of live police investigations into modern slavery increased by 65%. There were also increases in referrals to the Crown Prosecution Service for a charging decision and increases in convictions, although numbers remain low overall.
- Reforms to the NRM were due to be completed by March 2020, but remain ongoing. The Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner’s 2021/22 annual report noted that, despite a rise in referrals to the NRM, decision-making processes remain very slow. Overall, there has been limited progress on the NRM Transformation Programme.
- The UK Government’s 2020 statutory guidance on identifying and supporting victims of modern slavery was welcomed by civil society, although there were concerns about the delays in issuing such guidance and the lack of a meaningful consultation during its development.
- The Modern Slavery Act 2015 (MSA) has a number of weaknesses that hinder its effectiveness. The 2019 final report of the Independent Review of the MSA made various recommendations, including calls to amend the MSA to clarify that children cannot consent to their exploitation. The UK Government accepted a number of the recommendations, some subject to further consultation, but rejected this specific recommendation.