The Government is failing in its bid to tackle modern slavery, a damning report has found.
Theresa May’s pledge to “consign slavery to the history books” has been heavily undermined by the National Audit Office (NAO) after it found the Government’s modern slavery strategy was both “unclear” and “inadequate”.
The report accuses the Home Office of having an incomplete picture of the crime, warning that there remains “much more to do” to ensure victims in the UK are protected.
Campaigners said the “confusion and lack of consistency” in the UK’s response to slavery meant many victims were too afraid to approach the authorities for help, and that when they do, there is often a lack of support and protection.
The NAO found that delays in deciding whether people referred to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) – the UK’s framework for identifying victims of human trafficking – are victims of modern slavery is causing further distress and anxiety to vulnerable people.
It said the Home Office had failed to put in place a robust inspection regime to check the quality of care and support provided in the safe houses where potential victims are placed, with no minimum care standards in these houses.
There are estimated to be between 10,000 and 13,000 potential victims of modern slavery in the UK, with labour exploitation, sexual exploitation and domestic servitude the most frequent types of exploitation recorded.
In 2014, the Government introduced the Modern Slavery Strategy, with the aim of significantly reducing the prevalence of the issue. Theresa May announced last year that efforts to tackle the “evil” crime were to get a £33m boost and a new taskforce to coordinate the response.
But the new findings show the Modern Slavery Strategy fails to set out clear activities for the Home Office or a means of monitoring progress, and that the Government doesn’t know how much is spent on the strategy or how effectively the money is spent.
Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said: “The campaign to drive out modern slavery is in the early stages. So far it is helping to establish the scale and international nature of this issue.
“To combat modern slavery successfully, however, government will need to build much stronger information and understanding of perpetrators and victims than it has now.”
Kate Roberts, head of the Human Trafficking Foundation, said the report provides further evidence that the UK’s commitments on addressing slavery had still not translated into practical measures which affect the reality of the lives of victims and survivors."
She added: “The continuing confusion and lack of consistency in the UK’s response to slavery means victims who approach the authorities for help still cannot be sure that they won’t be criminalised as an immigration offender or for offences they have been forced to commit as part of their exploitation.
“Until there is a clear commitment to a longer term pathway for victims to rebuild their lives, for example by granting all confirmed victims a year’s residence permit to begin to recover, access healthcare and seek justice and compensation from their trafficker, it will remain difficult to find and demonstrate clear outcomes for survivors.”
The Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, Kevin Hyland, welcomed the NAO report, saying: "I have consistently called for a professional response to this crime, not only across Government, but indeed from all relevant actors.
"Significant progress has been made in recent years to enhance the response to modern slavery, which established the UK as a world lead in the fight against modern slavery. However, there is much more to be done and by taking up the recommendations of this report I am confident we will move forward in that position of global leadership.
"The Home Office has begun to address a number of the issues raised, including plans to significantly improve support for victims by reforming the NRM. I look forward to the Government intensifying action following the findings and recommendations of this report."
A separate report by the Work and Pensions Committee earlier this year revealed “inexcusable” failures in the UK’s system for dealing with modern slavery were leaving victims destitute while their abusers go free because they are not adequately supported to testify against them.
More recently, a report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) found that police were failing to tackle the crime, leaving perpetrators free to continue to exploit vulnerable people. The police watchdog said forces were guilty of “inconsistent and ineffective” identification of victims and were failing to investigate abuses quickly enough.
Responding to the report, a Home Office spokesperson said: “Modern slavery is a barbaric crime that destroys the lives of victims across the globe. We welcome the NAO’s report’s recognition of the work we have done to identify the issue and put in place the ambitious Modern Slavery Strategy and the Modern Slavery Act 2015 – the first legislation of its kind in the world.
“Since the NAO examined our work on modern slavery we have made significant strides in a number of areas it identifies in its report.”
The spokesperson added that recently announced reforms to the NRM would make substantial improvements to the system, and that the Government is investing in supporting victims, raising awareness of modern slavery in at-risk communities, and helping organisations that work to tackle slavery.
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