The Modern Slavery (Victim Support) Bill
Support for victims under the Modern Slavery Act 2015
18 October marked Anti-Slavery Day, a date intended to draw attention to progress in the fight against all forms of slavery and an opportunity to reflect on what more can be done. A major milestone in progress in the UK on this front was the Modern Slavery Act 2015, which brought together the legislative response to modern slavery by consolidating existing offences, introducing a criminal defence for victims of slavery and trafficking, creating new law enforcement powers and establishing the oversight role of the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner. However, the Modern Slavery Act 2015 has been criticised for failing to establish a statutory framework for care services and for providing victims with a limited period of care on a non-statutory basis whilst awaiting a National Referral Mechanism (NRM) outcome. The result is that victims of modern slavery are at risk of falling through gaps in the system and being re-trafficked.
Support that helps victims of modern slavery towards long-term safety, stability and well-being increases the likelihood that they will be able to give a full account of their trafficking or slavery background; that they will disclose intelligence about networks of criminal exploitation; and that they will cooperate with the authorities. It also helps prevent victims from returning to their exploiters where they had previously been reliant on them for accommodation or money. This has clear benefits for the victims themselves, but also assists those responsible for prosecuting alleged perpetrators of modern slavery or defending individuals who are suspected to be victims of exploitation.
How much support do victims currently receive?
The Home Office guidance accompanying the Modern Slavery Act 2015 states that support is offered to individuals who engage with the National Referral Mechanism and who are awaiting an official determination of their status as a victim of modern slavery. Following a positive Reasonable Grounds decision, adults are guaranteed support and assistance for a period of at least 45 calendar days. After a positive Conclusive Grounds decision, victims are guaranteed a further 45 calendar days of “move-on” support. Those who are assessed as not being victims of modern slavery receive just 9 working days of move-on support.
Although the Home Office has said that these timeframes are not a cut-off point and this support will only come to an end where there is no longer an identified recovery need, a number of organisations working with modern slavery victims have described the end of the move-on period as a “cliff edge”, with some individuals experiencing an abrupt cut-off of financial and welfare support. The impact of this has in several cases been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Adding to this, the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner has raised wider concerns about the current implementation of support measures. She has highlighted the lack of clarity on the division of safeguarding responsibilities between the Victim Care Contract provider and statutory agencies. Following a roundtable with the Local Government Association, London councils and local authority representatives from across the UK, she also identified a lack of cross-government coordination in policy areas such as housing, welfare and immigration. This is problematic given that children, homeless individuals and people with drug and alcohol dependency issues are particularly susceptible to becoming victims of modern slavery, and these overlapping concerns may only be met with a cohesive response from all relevant policy areas.
What is the Modern Slavery (Victim Support) Bill?
The Modern Slavery (Victim Support) Bill is draft legislation which proposes to amend and strengthen the Modern Slavery Act 2015 by requiring the Secretary of State to provide a much longer period of assistance and support to those going through the NRM process. Victims would be entitled to support services for the entire duration of their wait for Reasonable or Conclusive Grounds decisions. The assistance and support would include accommodation; financial assistance; medical treatment; counselling; a support worker; translation and interpretation services; legal advice and representation; and help with repatriation. Following a positive Conclusive Grounds decision, a victim would be entitled to 12 months’ support or longer, depending on their circumstances.
Additionally, the current starting point of the Home Office’s immigration policy in respect of modern slavery victims is that an NRM-confirmed victim will not qualify for discretionary leave automatically; they must also satisfy one of three criteria: either that leave is necessary owing to their personal circumstances; that it is necessary to enable them to pursue compensation; or they are helping police with their enquiries. The Victim Support Bill would further entitle any person who is receiving 12 months’ support following a positive Conclusive Grounds decision to leave to remain in the UK for the duration of that support period. Exceptions may apply to sexual or violent offenders and individuals posing a genuine, present and serious risk to the public.
The Victim Support Bill also seeks to amend the Children Act 1989 to require local authorities to protect children in care who have been trafficked from the risk of re-trafficking, including by ensuring the child has accommodation that is suitable to their particular needs.
Is it likely to reach the statute books?
The Victim Support Bill was first introduced as a Private Members’ Bill in 2018. It encountered resistance from the Government in a 2019 House of Commons debate, then the prorogation of Parliament consigned it to the dustbin of last year’s Parliamentary term. In January of this year it was formally revived for a first reading in the House of Lords, but it has yet to be scheduled for a second reading, in which members of the House of Lords debate its contents. In short, it has not gone far at all on its journey into statute.
The Bill’s lack of progress is perhaps unsurprising given that the Covid-19 pandemic has overtaken Brexit in the list of urgent political priorities. However, among a series of proposed amendments to the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill on 19 October was Amendment 9, which would have granted leave to remain and recourse to public funds to confirmed victims of modern slavery who are EEA or Swiss nationals. The amendment was voted down in the House of Commons, which does not bode well for the equivalent provision in the Victim Support Bill. Having said this, the reason for its rejection was purportedly to ensure that confirmed victims of modern slavery of all nationalities are considered for a grant of leave in the same way. Although this preserves a glimmer of hope for those who wish to see the Victim Support Bill on the statute books, keen observers would be best advised not to hold their breath.