Modern slavery in modern Britain

Work with offenders looks at the latest Government report on human trafficking, slavery and forced labour

The Home Office has published its end of year statistics on Modern Slavery. The report which covers all the home nations acknowledges that modern slavery is a complex, harmful, and largely hidden crime and says that improving evidence about the scale and nature of modern slavery is a priority for the Government.

Modern slavery is a term that includes any form of human trafficking, slavery, servitude or forced labour, as set out in the Modern Slavery Act 2015. Potential victims of modern slavery in the UK that come to the attention of authorised First Responder Organisations may be referred to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM). Authorised First Responder Organisations include local authorities, specified non-governmental organisations (NGOs), police forces and specified government agencies. The Home Office report gives statistics for the number of people referred to the NRM in 2020.

The Home Office classifies seventeen different types of modern slavery:

Recently, a significant number of people referred to the NRM are children exploited by criminal gangs in County Lines drug dealing operations. Indeed, 40% of all child referrals to the NRM are County Lines cases.

Latest figures 

In 2020, the NRM received 10,613 referrals of potential victims of modern slavery, which is very similar to the number received the previous year (10,616). This is the first year that has seen NRM referrals not increase compared to the preceding year, which statisticians think is mainly as a result from the COVID-19 pandemic and associated restrictions. Several factors are likely to have influenced referral rates throughout the year, such as lockdown measures in the UK meaning victims were less likely to interact with first responders, or reduced travel to the UK. Overall in 2020, referrals for adult potential victims (48%; 5,087) decreased compared to the preceding year (5,852), whereas referrals for child potential victims increased (4,547 to 4,946). Nearly three quarters (74%) of all referrals were of men or boys.

As in the previous year, the most common nationality of all referrals to the NRM in 2020 was UK nationals, accounting for 34% (3,560) of all potential victims, and who were primarily referred for criminal exploitation. The second most commonly referred nationality was Albanian (15%; 1,638), followed by Vietnamese nationals (6%; 653). Both Albanian and Vietnamese nationals were most commonly referred for labour and criminal exploitation, whilst sexual exploitation was also commonly reported for Albanian nationals.

A number of industries have become notorious for their exploitation of people as modern salves. These include the food packaging and processing sector, the shellfish industry and the textiles and garment sector. The police and other law enforcement partners had engaged in a number of specific intelligence gathering exercises across these sectors in order to identify the extent of exploitation and safeguard potential victims in these sectors, whilst raising public awareness. However, it is not clear whether these exercises have been suspended during the pandemic with police resources desperately needed in a number of other arenas.

Awareness of modern slavery is growing, particularly in the aftermath of such tragic incidents as the death of 39 Vietnamese people in a lorry container in Tilbury in October 2019.

With lockdown (we all hope) due to be lifted over the next months, it is likely that next year’s figures will show another surge in the number of people officially recognised as being subject to modern slavery. The Government has announced plans to ramp up its response with the recent establishment of the Modern Slavery Policy and Evidence Centre. The Centre is now fully operational and is starting to commission new research to enhance the evidence base to inform both policy and operational responses to this horrific crime.