Potential modern slavery victims face near-quadrupled waiting times

Potential victims of modern slavery have been waiting an average of two months for initial decisions on their case after being referred into the system, according to new data showing the figure is almost four times what it was a year ago.

The increased waiting times mean people reasonably believed to have been victims of human trafficking, servitude, or forced labour are therefore facing “very long” waits for access to support such as safe housing and counselling, an organisation which tracks modern slavery in the UK said.

The mean average number of days taken to make National Referral Mechanism (NRM) reasonable grounds decisions from July to September was 56, compared with 15 for the same period last year, according to Home Office figures published on Thursday.

To access support and have recognition of their circumstances in the UK, victims of slavery and human trafficking have to be assessed under the NRM.

This determines whether, on the balance of probabilities, they have “reasonable grounds” for statutory access to medical, psychological and legal support – meaning they are considered potential victims.

They are then assessed again and, if considered to be a confirmed victim, given a “positive conclusive grounds” decision.

The Home Office acknowledged the higher average waiting times for reasonable grounds decisions to be made, putting them down to a change in guidance in January, requiring decision makers “to have regard to objective factors, and typically a positive decision should not have been issued without supporting evidence or information in addition to a potential victim’s account”.

They said authorities in most cases therefore had needed to “take additional action to request information demonstrating objective factors” before making a decision.

Maya Esslemont, director of After Exploitation which tracks modern slavery in the UK, said: “Waiting two months to have access to information through a case worker, to somebody that can potentially talk you through some of the most traumatic aspects of what you’ve gone through in counselling, and just to potentially have a roof over your head – that is a very, very long wait given the severity of the crime that potential victim has suffered.”

She said despite court action which challenged the guidance, the Nationality and Borders Act “specifically made a provision to normalise that waiting time and to make it hard for victims to navigate the system”.

Ms Esslemont added: “It’s really important that this doesn’t become the new norm, even with the changed guidance.”

A total of 4,138 potential victims of modern slavery were referred to the Home Office from July to September 2023 – a 4% rise on the previous quarter (3,995) but a 10% fall on the July-September period last year (4,579).

The most common nationalities referred in the latest quarter were UK (25%), Albanian (20%) and Vietnamese (8%), the Home Office said.

There is support available where needed through the modern slavery victim care contract before a reasonable grounds decision is made, the Government said.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “Modern slavery is a barbaric crime and we provide support to thousands of victims each year.

“Earlier this year we introduced new guidance to filter out referrals without merit and make more robust decisions.

“We continue to hold all policies and procedures under review, including options for how to reduce the average decision making times.”

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