Every year since 2010, the UK has marked Anti-Slavery Day on 18 October. Seven years on, what progress has the UK made in abolishing modern-day slavery?
In the past decade, there has been a flurry of developments in law and practice reflecting a commitment on the part of the UK government to abolish modern-day slavery. This has included the introduction of a national referral mechanism (NRM), CPS guidance on non-punishment of certain victims of trafficking, and new offences of labour exploitation. The high point was the introduction of the Modern Slavery Act (MSA) 2015. Last year, the government announced an £8.5m fund for law enforcement agencies to tackle and prosecute modern slavery. There have been several high-profile prosecutions of trafficking rings in recent months. To the public eye, the government appears to be staying true to its promise to fight modern slavery with all its might.
However, in most practical ways, survivors of trafficking are still being failed.1See Housing assistance for trafficking victims.
The MSA 2015, unlike legislation in Scotland and Northern Ireland, does not explicitly place a legal duty on ministers to provide support and assistance to victims. It does not set out victims’ support entitlements either. Rather, the arrangements for identifying and supporting victims are to be set out in guidance or statutory regulations issued by the secretary of state, with no deadline for introducing them. In the meantime, the provision of support is contained in policy and in the terms of a contract between the Home Office and The Salvation Army that have not been fully disclosed.
Although the MSA 2015 provided for an independent child victim advocacy scheme, this has not been implemented. An NRM review completed in 2014 made recommendations for the improvement of the process, which have not seen the light of day. The Council of Europe’s Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings highlighted these gaps in its second evaluation report on the UK 2At page 81.
in October 2016 and urged the UK to take immediate action on length and quality of support for victims and effective access to compensation. No material change has happened a year on.
In the absence of a functioning domestic framework for protecting victims, lawyers have had to rely heavily on European law, especially the EU Trafficking Directive (Directive 2011/36/EU
), for example, to secure better legal aid funding for victims to pursue compensation claims (ATLEU v Lord Chancellor
CO/4231/2015) and to secure post-identification support for certain victims (R (Galdikas and others) v Secretary of State for the Home Department and another  EWHC 942 (Admin)
Brexit casts a long shadow over this. Urgent action is needed now to bridge the support gaps. The Modern Slavery (Victim Support) Bill is a significant step in the right direction but by no means transposes fully victims’ rights to support and assistance guaranteed in the EU Trafficking Directive. The EU (Withdrawal) Bill is just too broad-brush to safeguard against the sudden loss of these protective rights and obligations come March 2019.
The UK’s membership of the EU has enabled the anti-trafficking sector in the UK to make tremendous efforts in combating slavery and protecting the rights of victims. There is still a lot of work to be done and 18 October should be a day to ensure that we mitigate any risk Brexit poses to the ongoing efforts.