Modern slavery affects people throughout our communities. Survivors of modern slavery are our neighbours and it is often local organisations who deliver the frontline support to help them to recover and thrive in their freedom. While the legislative and policy frameworks in the UK to help victims of modern slavery recover and regain control of their lives comes “top-down” from national government, they are being delivered locally. However, there are significant problems in its delivery, with damaging impacts on the recovery of survivors.
Local governments have a key role to play in tackling modern slavery. Namely in identifying and referring potential victims and facilitating housing and accommodation in co-ordination support providers contracted by central government. Local authorities, as the ones who speak everyday with survivors of slavery, should be leading the way in co-designing with survivors processes that work informed by those who have experienced exploitation.
The UK, as a signatory of the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (ECAT), and a subscriber to the Palermo Protocol, is obligated to provide for and legislate on recovery and support for victims of modern slavery. In 2015, the UK introduced the Modern Slavery Act to combat modern slavery and human trafficking, protect victims and created the role of Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner.
In line with its obligations, the UK went on to develop the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), a procedure for identifying and supporting trafficking victims. This initially constituted a fixed 45-day period for support for survivors to recover and regain control of their lives. However, after a legal challenge in 2019 brought by two survivors of trafficking, the Home Office conceded that the 45-day policy was incompatible with their international obligations for support as it was not responsive to individual needs.
As a result, in September 2019 the Home Office introduced the Recovery Needs Assessment (RNA). With this new system, if someone is confirmed to be a victim of modern slavery, they will then enter the RNA process. Support is provided in the UK via the Modern Slavery Victim Care Contract (MSVCC). The MSVCC is the central way that the government performs its duties to provide accommodation, interpreting, financial support, and other assistance to adult victims. They do this through contracting non-governmental organisations working in our communities – such as the Salvation Army – to deliver support.
The Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group, chaired by Anti-Slavery International produced “One day at a time” in Spring 2022, which took the first comprehensive look at the Recovery Needs Assessment process. The report charters the first-hand experiences of, not only those on the receiving end of support but also the experiences of Modern Slavery Victim Care Contract (MSVCC) support providers, along with, support workers outside of the MSVCC.
The report found that the system in place is failing survivors. Every survivor said that they had, at times, been destitute. By failing to provide for basic needs, the RNA leaves survivors vulnerable to the cost of living, increases debt, and hinders recovery, all things that can heighten the risk of being re-trafficked.
Based on the findings Anti-Slavery International has been calling for improved procedures to ensure survivors are not overburdened with providing the same documentation again and again to access support. When survivors are bound by administrative processes, where they may be unsure of the process and burdened with proving their entitlement to support, it can mirror the relationship formerly had with a trafficker and be a source of re-traumatisation. Standardised timeframes were also found to be vital to recovery and we recommended that survivors need a minimum of 12 months of support, tapered down in line with a person’s recovery. It is only when access to support for a specified period is certain that survivors can have the breathing space to recover and gain control of their lives. This needs to be paired with better and more consistent training for those professionals working at the local authority level and in our communities.
The report overwhelmingly found that the key to designing frameworks and processes to help the recovery of victims of modern slavery is engagement with survivors and local authorities have the power to take up this call. Local authorities should be asking if they can engage with survivor groups to deliver training to staff and council representatives who may come into contact with victims of modern slavery.
They should be asking survivors and those working with survivors what means are at their disposal to expedite procedures for delivering support. For example, by working with MSVCC contractors Bradford Council developed a process to ensure that if a survivor is a confirmed victim of modern slavery but also destitute, they are automatically treated as a high-priority case for housing and can be granted accommodation that day, under section one of the Localism Act 2011. This is one of many good examples of best practice at local government level collected by the Local Government Association.
Local governments can lead the way in improving the effectiveness of central government policy and bring about the design and implementation of systems to support the recovery of victims of modern slavery. There has been poor delivery and poorer engagement with survivors to improve support. Through boosted survivor engagement at the local level, there is the opportunity to elevate the voices of survivors to influence policies and frameworks that are built on lived experience and allow survivors to recover with dignity and gain control of their lives.