Campaigners have long argued that the 45-day policy, which limits support for victims – such as safe housing, financial support and counselling – to six weeks, is “woefully inadequate” and forces some victims to move on before they are ready, risking re-exploitation.
Now the Home Office has conceded that the cap on this support – eligible to any individual who is recognised as a victim by the national referral mechanism (NRM) – is incompatible with international standards and should be based on an individual’s needs rather than a length of time.
The department has committed to creating a “needs-based system” in which support would not be restricted to 45 days or any other length of time.
A legal challenge by two victims saw the High Court rule in March that the 45-day policy risked causing “irreparable harm to very vulnerable individuals” and was potentially unlawful.
One of the victims was an Albanian woman trafficked from her home country and forced into sex work. She had a young daughter and after she escaped the exploitation she relied on her support worker for both emotional support and financial assistance.
The other was a man who was trafficked from Vietnam to the UK and forced into cannabis cultivation. He had been beaten by his traffickers and suffered from several mental health conditions, and relied on his support worker and the financial assistance provided to people in his situation.
Lawyers, politicians and charities welcomed the decision, but said many people who had been enslaved had already been left “at the mercy of the 45-day cliff edge drop in support”, and cautioned that the Home Office plans for support must be “clearly defined”.
Ahmed Aydeed, director at Duncan Lewis Solicitors, said he was glad the legal challenge had forced the Home Office to withdraw its current policy, but highlighted that the government had “been failing for years in its legal obligation to support victims of trafficking”, leaving them “at the mercy of the 45 day cliff edge drop in support”.
He added: “It is beyond belief that the home secretary has been applying this policy for years, only now accepting that the law requires a needs-based system, not delimited by time alone. I’m saddened by the number of victims that have lost vital support over the years, when they so desperately needed it.”
Labour MP Paul Blomfield said: “Despite the government’s repeated statements that it wishes to protect and support survivors of human trafficking, many have been let down by woefully inadequate post-NRM support.
“This decision is welcome, but whether a new approach benefits victims will depend on how decisions are made and who makes them.”
Mr Blomfield highlighted research from the charity Focus on Labour Exploitation (Flex) demonstrating how Home Office immigration priorities are “repeatedly hampering” efforts to prevent human trafficking and protect victims, in some cases even leading to retrafficking.
“The Home Office has a major conflict of interest between its immigration policies and its modern slavery duty, so the new policy emerging from this judgement needs to ensure independent decisions focussed on people’s rights,” he added.
Kate Roberts, UK and Europe programme manager of Anti-Slavery International, said: “The fact that confirmed victims of trafficking should no longer be made to leave support before they are ready is hugely welcomed and long overdue. For too long victims have been identified as trafficked only to have support cut off leaving them destitute and open to re-exploitation.
“What support entails will now be key – support needs to be specialist and able to respond to individual needs as well as advocate for access to rights and entitlements.”
Kate Garbers, managing director at the modern slavery charity Unseen, said the move was a “welcomed improvement”, but that this support was often reliant on the availability of local provisions, such as housing and face-to-face support – so could become a “postcode lottery” if expectations are not “clearly defined”.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The government is committed to stamping out modern slavery and providing victims with the support they need to begin rebuilding their lives.
“We are always building our understanding of the complex needs of victims of modern slavery and striving to improve the support available.
“We have already significantly increased support for victims earlier this year, and we will continue to drive improvements to the services available to ensure they are meeting the recovery needs of victims.”
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