Responding organisation: West Midlands Anti-Slavery Network
Date of submission (online and by email): 6th May 2021
The West Midlands Anti-Slavery Network connects the various agencies involved in tackling modern day slavery in the West Midlands and beyond. Our regional multi agency Network works in partnership across statutory and third sectors to raise awareness, reduce the threat and harm of slavery, and rescue and support survivors in the West Midlands geographical area.
The below feedback to Chapter 6 of the New Immigration Plan is drawn from feedback from organisations across the network.
We welcome the government’s commitments in the New Plan for Immigration to giving victims of modern slavery the support they need to rebuild their lives. However, there are a number of proposed elements in Chapter 6 which we feel are concerning for the modern slavery sector, and which we would kindly ask the Home Office to take into consideration.
In the opening paragraph of Chapter 6, there is a statement that ‘illegal migrants, including foreign national offenders and those who post a security risk to our country’ are seeking modern slavery referrals in order to ‘frustrate removal’ from the UK. We are concerned about this view of the NRM, and the language used here, for several reasons.
First, there does not appear to be any data to support this claim, or if there is then it is data which has not been released for public scrutiny. We would kindly ask the Home Office to be transparent in this claim, and evidence the percentage of total referrals to the NRM that they believe to be fraudulent.
Secondly, it is more than probable that some trafficked persons may indeed be ‘offenders’. Many trafficking victims are charged with crimes that they were coerced into committing as a result of their exploitation, and it is concerning to see a blanket conflation between being a foreign offender, and being a danger to society. Many trafficked persons are not identified early enough by statutory services, and are therefore not afforded the opportunity to engage a Section 45 defence under the Modern Slavery Act. The case of VCL and AN v UK is a prime example of where exploited children are wrongly charged as criminals, and not identified as trafficked persons until many years later.
Thirdly, we would respectfully suggest that ‘illegal migrants’ is a potentially inflammatory term, and additionally could refer to any number of different situations of an insecure immigration status. As the Home Office is aware, many victims of trafficking have insecure immigration status at the point of discovery, and it is only through the dedicated support and
time provided by the NRM that they are able to understand their options and seek regularisation of their immigration status. As the sector is well-aware, fear around insecure immigration status can be a control mechanism or a deterrent to victims from coming forward, and use of this potentially inflammatory term risks further deterring victims from identifying as such.
Fourthly, the paragraph includes a reference to ‘child rapists’ seeking modern slavery referrals. Again, there does not appear to be any data that the public has seen to corroborate this statement. Additionally, as the Home Office will be more than aware, Section 45 of the modern slavery act does not provide a defence against rape, or sexual activity with a child. Therefore, anyone who has been charged with either of these offences should be subject to criminal justice processes regardless of their NRM status. We would respectfully suggest that this statement has the potential to be viewed and used in a way that could be inflammatory.
Finally, this section makes reference to distinguishing between ‘genuine and vexatious’ accounts of modern slavery. We would kindly point out that the NRM process is already hugely challenging for many people to access, navigate, and receive a positive decision from, particularly if they are a third-country national. As an organisation we have not seen evidence of people making vexatious applications – more often, survivors are not even aware that the NRM exists as a support mechanism, which is why so much time and effort has gone into training and developing resources to support first responders to be able to explain the NRM correctly.
Additionally, the Statutory Guidance is particularly helpful on points of credibility and of the impact of trauma on people’s accounts. As a sector we have really welcomed this guidance and would be hugely disappointed to see an increased scrutiny on credibility that suggests victims are lying – particularly, where the statutory guidance has been clear that NRM decision-makers need to take a trauma-informed view of credibility and discrepancies in accounts.
Birmingham Methodist District’s Adavu Project, one of the key network partners, has been tackling the issue of modern slavery in the West Midlands since 2011 and has supported during that time over 155 survivors with longer-term post-NRM casework support. They have noted that their work is grounded in the specialist knowledge and experience of supporting adult survivors of exploitation that the Adavu Project has gained over this time, and that it is their professional opinion that all of their clients are genuine victims of modern slavery and human trafficking. Working closely with the 100+ members of the West Midland Anti-Slavery Network over the past 10 years, they have explained that they have similarly never come across any victims abusing the NRM system for their own immigration/status gain.
Jericho, another key network partner for the last 10 years, is a charity providing supported employment and volunteering to survivors. They have supported around 130 survivors and similarly share the professional opinion that all of their clients are genuine victims of modern slavery and human trafficking.
Training for First Responders
We welcome any additional training for First Responder Organisations, and identifying specific First Responders within those organisations. We would be keen to see additional materials developed which could support First Responders to explain the NRM; help victims understand their rights, entitlements and options; and achieve informed consent for entry. This is something that we have been developing locally within the West Midlands and would welcome national collaboration and development on. The NRM Explanatory booklet which was developed in the West Midlands and is now available as a free national resource is linked here: https://www.westmidlandsantislavery.org/2020/10/22/west-midlands-anti-slavery-network-nrm-explanatory-document-launched/
We would also welcome additional training for First Responder Organisations to develop the victim care pathways that run alongside FR training, including resourcing and support to allow these to be implemented. As the Home Office is aware, there is currently no nationally available funding for the pre-NRM space or for First Responders to offer safe and supported emergency accommodation while an NRM is being explored. This is one of the key challenges that we see across the West Midlands and more nationally, where First Responder Organisations are challenged to provide an adequate service at this point in a victim’s journey, because they do not have the dedicated emergency accommodation or financing to do so.
Furthermore, developing specific and additional training for prisons and the probation sector would be hugely welcomed. Staff in these sectors face significant challenges in identifying and supporting victims, particularly those who are in the NRM and are not in receipt of support through the Victim Care Contract. We would also welcome training for legal representatives, particularly those working in the criminal justice sector who may come across or represent potential victims.
In Birmingham City Council, the Modern Slavery Coordinator has been working to embed a ‘Modern Slavery Champions’ approach, where specific staff members are provided with an enhanced training package and ongoing support and second-tier advice, in order that they can effectively discharge First Responder duties. This has seen a marked rise in the number of NRM and DtN referrals being submitted, and is highlighting where practice needs to be improved to meet the needs of victims. This may be an approach that the Home Office wishes to build on, particularly in offering additional training and support to First Responder organisations.
We have also seen success in the West Midlands from the launch of an adult slavery safeguarding case conference approach. This ensures that multi-agency case conferences are convened around a potential victim to ensure appropriate and timely safeguarding prior to an NRM referral, and also ensure collaboration on an NRM referral for the purpose of quality control and minimum standards. We would welcome this multi-agency case conference approach being adopted into First Responder training, and the resources provided to enable FRs to effectively embed it within statutory protocols, particularly with regards Police and Local Authority.
As the Home Office are aware, there are significant numbers of front-line organisations who are not First Responders but who are likely to identify and support potential victims at all
stages of their exploitation, and subsequently work in partnership with First Responder Organisations. This is particularly relevant to the homelessness sector and the NHS. There is currently no nationally agreed training package for non-first Responder organisations who provide a direct service to potential victims, and we believe that there would be significant benefit from similar training currently offered to the First Responders.
Linked to this point, we would also welcome the review of First Responder Organisations and the First Responder Guidance, and the opportunity to look at which organisations perform this duty and whether this list still meets the needs of the developing modern slavery sector. We also welcome the opportunity to be more prescriptive about which departments or teams within First Responder Organisations can perform a FR role – for example, adult and children’s social care teams within Local Authorities, rather than any staff member at a Local Authority.
Public Order Grounds Exemption
With respect to public order grounds exemption, we would like to register concerns that this may be applied with undue force, as the phrase ‘poses a risk to national security’ is not defined. The conflations we have seen in the New Plan for Immigration between the phrases ‘illegal migrant’ and ‘foreign national offender’, give us cause for concern that victims may not be afforded their rest and recovery period on the basis of a situation which is beyond their control – for example, having insecure immigration status at the point of entry to the NRM; or being convicted of a crime prior to being recognised as a victim (e.g. as is so often the case with children and criminal exploitation). The public order grounds exemption already exists within the Statutory Guidance, and the ‘inhibited deployment of this exemption’ is not necessarily indicative that it is not being fully used – potentially more that it does not need to be used.
Additionally, we remain concerned by the suggestion that victims of modern slavery who have a prison sentence of 12 months or more as a result of exploitation, may be refused NRM support under the public order grounds exemption. This would directly impact on victims of criminal exploitation who are routinely given prison sentences as a result of activities they were forced to carry out while exploited. Victims with a criminal record are also potentially more likely to be vulnerable to exploitation, as this record may be used as a method of control by exploiters. As a result, applying a public order grounds exemption may leave vulnerable victims even more at risk of exploitation or re-trafficking.
Within the context of drugs offences, it is not uncommon to see sentences of 12 months or more. As the NRM data shows, forced criminality (such as county lines) is increasingly recognised as a significant form of exploitation in the UK, but unfortunately many victims are not identified until they are within the criminal justice process. This potential outcome of forced criminality does not seem to be factored into this proposal, and under these conditions (for example), one of Adavu’s recent clients would have refused NRM support through no fault of her own.
A new Reasonable Grounds Test and Credibility
We would like to raise concerns about the suggestion of raising the threshold for a Reasonable Grounds decision. As the Home Office is aware, the time between a victim being identified by a First Responder, and being referred into the NRM, is often very short – particularly if emergency accommodation cannot be sourced locally, and given that the Place of Safety provision has not yet been implemented. A First Responder therefore has a very small window of time to gather evidence, understand the situation, access health services, seek appropriate interpreters, build trust and develop open communication, to enable a victim to disclose freely. This is particularly pronounced if there are risks around the location, or if the victim has no recourse to public funds and there are challenges accessing emergency accommodation – something for which there is currently no dedicated central or regional government funding for.
As a result, victims are often asked to attempt to give a coherent account of incredibly recent trauma, in order to access the only form of support they may be entitled to. First Responders are therefore often completing NRM referrals with limited time, resource, and training, and attempting to capture a coherent picture of a traumatic experience with limited support structures to do so.
We would recommend increasing the Place of Safety provision for up to at least 10 days, allowing a First Responder and the victim the time to build a coherent picture and account of their experience, and access the immediate support they require. We would also welcome the introduction of a local multi-agency panel or specific local First Responders as part of that process, which we feel would significantly improve the quality of referrals, ensure immediate support in the days post-exploitation, and a better chance of supporting prosecution.
Despite the challenges in the pre-NRM period, it has been hugely encouraging to see a rise in positive RG decisions, which we believe may partly be the combined result of the Home Office’s new First Responder training; increased funding and third-sector services in a sector that still requires much more additional input; and a spotlight on this issue at a national level. We would be hugely disappointed to see this positive indicator be seen as suggestive that the RG threshold is too low.
With regards decision-making at Reasonable Grounds stage, it has been noted by staff in our pre-NRM SafePlace safehouse that there are occasionally discrepancies in the decisions that are reached, and we would welcome the opportunity to review the decision-making process at this stage. We would also welcome the opportunity to discuss new models of decision-making at RG stage, including local decision making as is being proposed for children. We would welcome any improvements to consistency of decision making at the SCA, including the opportunity to review the training for SCA decision makers. We have offered the SCA the opportunity to collaborate on training opportunities and although this has not yet been taken up, we remain keen to progress this suggestion.
With respect to credibility, as noted above, the 2020 Statutory Guidance already provides a very helpful framework for decision makers, in terms of how they consider and apply credibility to modern slavery claims. As the guidance notes, “it is important to remember that
victims of modern slavery may have been through significant trauma, and that this may impact on the information they provide. Due to the trauma of modern slavery, there may be valid reasons why a potential victim’s account is inconsistent or lacks sufficient detail.” This section of the Statutory Guidance, along with the Annex on Working with Vulnerable Persons, has been hugely welcomed, and is a very new part of the process. It would be highly concerning if this considered, trauma-informed approach – which has been so vital to many survivors for whom telling a perfectly consistent account of their experience would be impossible – were to be reneged upon.
With respect to the ‘one stop’ suggestion, we would like to raise concerns about the appropriateness and feasibility of requiring modern slavery victims to disclose experiences in one go, regardless of whether this has a bearing on their immigration status or not. As the Home Office have noted at multiple points in their own Statutory Guidance, it is not reasonable, nor often medically possible, for a modern slavery survivor to be able to disclose their experiences at the ‘right’ time, and there may be a myriad of reasons for delayed disclosure. This suggestion directly undermines the medically evidenced understanding that the impact of trauma can hinder immediate and coherent recall of events, dates, details, and so on.
This is exactly why enhanced training for First Responders is so welcomed – when someone does eventually disclose an experience of modern slavery, they need that information to be handled sensitively, and by someone who is comfortable working with vulnerable persons who may have experienced traumatic events. We would strongly suggest that the Statutory Guidance on delayed disclosure remains in place, and that the Home Office continues to recognise that delayed disclosure is a valid and understandable outcome of events beyond the control of a potential victim. We also recognise that delayed disclosure as a result of abuse is well-recognised in other abuse and crime types (for example, domestic abuse or child sexual abuse), and would be concerned if that were to be removed as a consideration purely for modern slavery abuse.
Additionally, we note that in the wider Immigration Plan there are proposed suggestions that if a victim passes through other countries en-route to the UK, that this may be a reason to decline protection. We have not yet seen any suggestions for how this may apply to those who are trafficked for the purposes of exploitation; for those who are smuggled into the UK and then exploited at a later date; or for those who have experienced modern slavery in their home country and later are referred into the NRM, often alongside a claim for protection. We would respectfully note that there are currently no ‘legal routes’ into the UK for the purposes of claiming protection; that international and domestic law makes it clear that the manner of entry is irrelevant if someone is seeking protection; and additionally that our obligations under ECAT extend to those who were exploited at any point in their lives, in any country (including, but not limited to, the UK). As a result, we are concerned about how these proposals may impact on potential victims of modern slavery and would suggest that this element of the Immigration Plan is revised in line with international law. We would encourage assurances from the Home Office that someone’s experience of trafficking into the UK, regardless of the countries they may have passed through, should not be held against them. We also feel this demonstrates why the NRM needs to remain separate from immigration matters, and the potential pitfalls of conflating experiences of modern slavery, and protection via the NRM, with the immigration system.
Providing Modern Slavery Victims with Increased Support
We welcome the commitment to ensuring that confirmed victims of modern slavery may be eligible for a grant of discretionary leave to remain. However, we would raise concerns about the phrase “with long-term recovery needs linked to their modern slavery exploitation”. We would respectfully suggest that it may be almost impossible to determine what element of someone’s support needs derive solely from their exploitation. For example, as the Home Office notes in their Statutory Guidance (Annex D, section entitled “Adults who are particularly susceptible to modern slavery”), there are a range of factors that might make someone more vulnerable to exploitation. These vulnerabilities would be present prior to exploitation, and yet they may also manifest in long-term recovery needs that would require a grant of discretionary leave to remain. Additionally, the Home Office are already aware of the challenges with the Recovery Needs Assessment process, whereby support is predicated on the narrow basis of whether someone’s recovery needs are specifically related to their experience of modern slavery. It is problematic and hugely challenging to try and treat a victim as anything other than a whole person with a range of intersecting needs which should be addressed holistically.
Jericho has examples of survivors whose pre-existing vulnerabilities made them susceptible to modern slavery. Whilst not deriving solely from their exploitation, without ongoing support to address these vulnerabilities the individuals remain vulnerable to re-exploitation.
We would instead suggest that the Home Office apply this positive commitment to Discretionary Leave, to passing the Victim Support Bill. In its current form, the bill suggests that immigration rules should make provision for leave to remain in the United Kingdom to be granted to a person where there has been a conclusive determination that the person is a victim of slavery or human trafficking, and where leave is necessary due to the person’s circumstances, including but not limited to the needs of that person for safety and protection from harm, including protection from re-trafficking.
Additionally, we welcome the proposal for victims for “ready access to specific mental health support to help them recover from their experiences of exploitation”. Adavu, one of our partner organisations, has noted that speedy access to quality therapeutic support for mental health is vital for survivors of modern slavery, and affects almost all of their clients: most have either a diagnosis of complex/PTSD or exhibit clear signs of such. Their clients experience great difficulty in accessing appropriate support, with their needs being too often assessed as too complex for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, but not acute enough for secondary mental health support. The majority of these clients end up being referred to a local charity for counselling, for which there is a 9-12 month waiting list.
Abuse of Modern Slavery Protection: An Example
We thank the Home Office for providing an example of what it feels is an illustration of the fraudulent usage of the NRM. This case study concerns an individual who was convicted of drug supply, spent time in prison, was deported from the UK twice, and then returned a third time and made a claim for protection which was refused. They were subsequently detained, but while in detention, the individual raised matters indicating they may be a victim of modern slavery, and they were referred to the NRM where they received a positive Reasonable Grounds decision.
We would respectfully suggest that this case study, in many respects, shows an example of where an individual was never afforded the identification and support that they may have been entitled to, but was finally – at some point – able to make a disclosure about their experiences, which was recognised appropriately by the Home Office’s own detention staff, who rightly made an NRM referral. We would ask the Home Office to consider an alternate view – that this actually shows a potentially incredibly distressing journey for an individual, which only eventually – after many years – ends in the recognition that they are actually a victim, and should be afforded protection.
The WMASN has seen many examples through our partners and wider network where victims have spent years without being identified, and living without the appropriate support and resources that they should be afforded under ECAT. During this time, they may be coerced into criminal exploitation; experience further trauma as a result of incarceration and deportation; be exposed to the risks of exploitation or other forms of violence while homeless; be prevented from working legally; and not be appropriately identified or safeguarded by professionals at any point during that journey. The impact of these experiences can have significant and long-lasting impacts on the mental health of a victim and their vulnerability to re-trafficking, and ultimately may require far more support and resources than if they had been identified as a potential victim early on. We wish the individual in this case study all the best and would respectfully ask that the Home Office consider reframing their understanding of ‘abuse’ of protections, particularly with relevance to those who have experienced modern slavery.