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Modern slavery: how the UK government’s 2023 reforms made it harder for victims to prove they are being exploited

As many as 130,000 people in the UK are trapped in modern slavery, according to the recently appointed independent anti-slavery commissioner, Eleanor Lyons. These people are forced to work in a variety of exploitative situations, ranging from cannabis farms to building sites to sex work.

Lyons has been raising concerns that the government has cut her budget by almost a fifth, but there have also been serious issues with the system for assessing modern-slavery complaints. Known as the national referral mechanism, it was reformed by the government in January 2023 to try and take some administrative pressure away from the Home Office and speed up decision-making.

From our analysis of the data, however, these reforms made the situation for potential victims considerably worse.

The reforms

The referral process begins when a potential victim notifies an authority, such as a police force or a charity, that they are in an exploitative work situation. The authority makes an online referral to the Home Office, which then decides whether there are reasonable grounds to believe modern slavery is taking place.

If so, the victim becomes entitled to things like financial assistance and temporary protection from deportation, while the Home Office also instructs the relevant police force to take appropriate action against those being accused of exploitation.

It used to be that the authority, known in the guidance as the “first responder”, made the referral purely based on a victim’s story. But following the reforms, they additionally had to provide “objective evidence” such as other eyewitness testimonies or findings from a police investigation.

The government’s thinking was that this would mean the Home Office wouldn’t need to keep going back to first responders for more information. However, we see several concerning trends.

Until 2022, the number of “reasonable grounds” decisions by the Home Office was steadily increasing. During 2023, it is on course to have declined, as shown by the the chart below (only the first three quarters are available so far).

‘Reasonable grounds’ decisions per year, 2014-23:

The proportion of positive decisions has fallen after years of holding steady, particularly in relation to adult claims, though children are down too.

Positive ‘reasonable grounds’ decisions by age group (%), 2014-23:

The lead time for positive decisions has greatly increased. Decisions previously took four to six days, roughly in line with a Home Office target commitment of five working days. It rose to 21 days in the second quarter of 2023 and then 47 days in the third quarter.

This seriously affects potential victims, because without a positive decision, they can only access limited support like emergency accommodation and emergency medical assistance. Managing these increased emergency requirements has also been an added burden for first responders and councils.

Final-stage decisions

Once a positive “reasonable grounds” decision has been made, the Home Office needs to make a final decision on a claim. Over the past decade, these “conclusive grounds” decisions have been far slower than initial decisions. In 2019, for instance, there were 9,290 “reasonable grounds” decisions but only 3,615 final decisions (including pending decisions from previous years). The average decision time increased from 105 days in 2014 to 369 days in 2018, then 539 days in 2022.

To reduce the backlog, the Home Office has hired extra staff. This has led to a significant increase in the number of final-stage decisions since 2022.

Final-stage decisions 2014-23:

The Home Office has also blamed decision speed on “timely sharing of information” by first responders and potential victims. The 2023 reforms sought to address this not only by increasing the initial referral threshold but also by setting a deadline of 14 days for responders and potential victims providing additional information.

It’s unclear whether this has helped. The average decision time was 566 days in the first quarter of 2023, 451 days in the second quarter and 530 days in the third quarter. That looks like a stabilisation, though we’re still far from the Home Office’s 30-day target.

Meanwhile, the proportion of positive final decisions dropped. It’s unclear whether this is due to the higher referral threshold, the 14-day deadline or because first responders don’t have the capacity to help victims.

Whatever the case, it’s particularly bad news for immigrant victims, since they can only be given temporary leave to remain in the UK if they have a positive final decision.

Positive final decisions 2014-23 (%)

Reforms to the reforms

Within months of the reforms, the government faced several legal challenges by slavery claimants who had received negative decisions. The claimants argued that this was despite having made credible cases.

The government responded by agreeing with the legal challenge and clarifying its guidance in July 2023, in what amounted to a partial U-turn. It emphasised that the Home Office could consider all forms of evidence including the victim’s account, and that in some cases there would be no need for additional evidence. It also made clear that it is the Home Office and not the first responder’s responsibility to collect all available information.

The clarifications probably mean that the lead times for initial and final decisions has peaked. However, a major reversal seems unlikely, and time will tell whether the rate of positive final decisions will return to previous levels.

The government also climbed down over an additional rule introduced as part of the reforms that potential victims with convictions for murder, manslaughter or terrorism-related activities couldn’t benefit from a slavery decision. Instead they were to receive a Home Office public-order disqualification, terminating their needs-assessment process.

Between January and September 2023, 334 disqualifications were issued. Again, the policy became the subject of a judicial review, amid concerns that potential victims might have been forced by their exploiter to commit the crimes in question.

The government duly stopped issuing disqualifications, though it didn’t help the 334 people excluded under the reforms. The government has also since introduced new grounds for disqualifications for illegal immigrants.

To see how these changes affect modern slavery decisions in the UK, we’ll be watching the new data closely as it becomes available. In the meantime, the 2023 data reveals the price that potential victims of modern slavery paid for the government’s reforms. It was clearly a policy that did much more harm than good.

The Conversation

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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