Modern slavery in the UK
2023 was often a very challenging year for modern slavery policy in the UK. As the Home Affairs Committee put it in the final report of its inquiry into human trafficking at the end of the year, "we are deeply concerned that the Government is prioritising irregular migration issues at the expense of tackling human trafficking".
Last year saw the introduction and implementation of laws and policies that remove the protections people who have experienced trafficking are entitled to under international law. Early signs show that since the implementation of the modern slavery provisions in the Nationality and Borders Act from January 2023, and linked revisions to modern slavery statutory guidance, there has been a marked decline in the proportion and number of people referred to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) being recognised as potential victims of modern slavery, with the time taken for initial NRM decisions rising from 6 to 47 days (between Q1 and Q3 2023) and therefore fewer people waiting longer to access specialised support.
In 2023 the Illegal Migration Act was passed and, while not yet implemented, its modern slavery provisions are expected to affect thousands of people by denying them access to support. The Act is also likely to decrease survivors’ willingness to support criminal prosecutions, which in turn would hand more power to traffickers.
The Home Office has recently confirmed that it does not plan to proceed with a previous commitment to provide 12 months of specialised support for survivors who have received a positive final decision through the NRM. This means the current system will remain in place which provides at least 45 days of transition support to link up with other services followed by the need to make requests to the Home Office for further specialised support. The Home Office has also confirmed it will not proceed with previous commitments to provide ‘places of safety’ for people who are deciding whether they want to enter the NRM in the first place.
The passage of the Online Safety Act
towards the end of 2023 was significant and PEC-funded research has shown the important role of internet regulation in preventing adult sexual exploitation taking place online. However, overall, there were relatively few concrete developments in other areas of modern slavery policy in the UK during 2023. The Home Office appears to have paused
its work to revise the 2014 Modern Slavery Strategy or issue annual progress reports. While the publication of a new UK Government Modern Slavery Statement in September 2023 was welcome, the King’s Speech in November 2023 did not include any legislation that would deliver long-promised reforms to the transparency in supply chains laws, such as the introduction of fines
for businesses which fail to publish an annual modern slavery statement.
"We are deeply concerned that the Government is prioritising irregular migration issues at the expense of tackling human trafficking."Home Affairs Committee's report of its inquiry into Human Trafficking
Modern slavery internationally
During 2023, there were several developments in relation to the UK’s international-facing work on modern slavery. The Home Office’s £24 million Modern Slavery Fund is funding programmes between 2022 and 2025 aimed at reducing modern slavery in the UK and overseas. The UK Government has also actively supported the new Global Commission on Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking, the creation of which was underpinned by Modern Slavery PEC-led research.
To mark the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UK Government recently pledged to champion survivor leadership in international partnerships and support the inclusion of survivors of modern slavery in international programmes, through funding to civil society organisations and survivor-led organisations – which aligns with the key recommendations of the Modern Slavery PEC and the University of Liverpool’s research – commissioned by the UK Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office – which found that meaningful inclusion of survivors of modern slavery in international programmes makes them more effective.
However, it’s hard to ignore the context of the greatly reduced international aid budget in which these efforts operate, which has a knock-on effect on the ability to address the underlying causes of exploitation across the world.
"[...] it’s hard to ignore the context of greatly reduced international aid budget in which these efforts operate, which have a knock-on effect on the ability to address the underlying causes of exploitation across the world."
What's in store in 2024?
In this context, as 2024 begins, what is on the horizon for modern slavery laws and policies in the UK?
As we highlighted in a previous blog, implementation of the Illegal Migration Act 2023 is likely to remain the predominant focus of the current UK Government during 2024. The ability to implement the Act as intended by the Government requires the UK to have a functioning agreement with another nation to enable the return of people to a third country - the most progress the UK has made on this is via the Rwanda partnership. A central pillar of implementation will therefore be the Government’s response to the Supreme Court’s November 2023 ruling that the policy to relocate people seeking asylum to Rwanda is unlawful.
Following the ruling, the Government has introduced a new Treaty between the UK and Rwanda and the ‘Safety of Rwanda Bill’. However, it remains to be seen how the Bill will progress through Parliament and whether these measures will address the Court’s concerns. On our part, we will soon publish an analysis of the legal compatibility of the Rwanda measures with the UK’s international modern slavery obligations, as well as findings from research into the impact of the modern slavery measures in the Nationality and Borders Act 2022.
Implementation of the Illegal Migration Act will drastically change and reduce the support available for many survivors of modern slavery in the UK, and is taking place as the Government has started work to procure the next adult victim support contract. Our Policy Brief on survivor support highlighted the need for this service to be properly resourced to provide consistent and appropriate long-term support, taking a trauma-informed approach as the starting point and the importance of meaningful inclusion of people with lived experience of modern slavery in both the design of this contract and wider policies. We’ll monitor the Act’s implementation.
In the meantime, by 8 February 2024, the Government is due to publish its response to wide-ranging recommendations made by the Home Affairs Committee’s Human Trafficking inquiry, which will be an opportunity to understand what the Government’s current priorities are in relation to modern slavery.
"Implementation of the Illegal Migration Act will drastically change and reduce the support available for many survivors of modern slavery in the UK, and is taking place as the Government has started work to procure the next adult victim support contract"
Outside of the UK Government, there are promising pieces of work underway that aim to improve the response to modern slavery across the UK in 2024. The role of the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, vacant for 18 months, has now been filled and the new Commissioner will be preparing and publishing a new Strategic Plan.
The Scottish Government has also formally launched a refresh of its 2017 Human Trafficking and Exploitation Strategy. The Modern Slavery PEC has highlighted the need for a strategic shift towards prevention. Both of these strategies are opportunities to meaningfully involve people with lived experience, integrate preventative approaches that consider the root causes of modern slavery, and examine how modern slavery links with other policy agendas, such as violence against women and girls and labour market regulation.
A key political event in 2024 will be the UK General Election. Political parties will set out their policy positions via their manifestos and we’ll look into these closely, especially any detail on modern slavery policies, paying particular attention to how policy areas we expect to see in the manifestos, such as immigration, climate change or labour regulation have the potential to address the drivers of exploitation, and particularly in the case of immigration, that they don’t increase people’s vulnerability to exploitation. Look out for our forthcoming joint briefing with the Migration Observatory on links between modern slavery and immigration.
2024 therefore looks set to be another dynamic year for modern slavery policy in the UK, with persistent challenges around the removal of protections for survivors, but also opportunities to make a difference. At the Modern Slavery PEC, we’re looking forward to continuing to work with our partners to inform laws and policies with high-quality evidence and people with lived experience throughout 2024.
Liz Williams and Victoria Tecca are the Modern Slavery PEC's Policy Impact Managers.