An investigation by the Byline Intelligence Team raises questions about the Home Secretary’s claims that criminals are ‘clogging up’ the system to support victims of modern slavery

The Home Office cannot confirm how many victims of modern slavery have been charged with crimes relating to child rape or threats to national security – despite the Home Secretary claiming there was a “major increase” in serious criminals abusing the system. 

Last year, Priti Patel stated that “our generous safeguards for victims are being rampantly abused by child rapists, people who pose a threat to national security and failed asylum seekers with no right to be here”.  

But a Freedom of Information (FOI) request by the Byline Intelligence Team suggests the Government does not have ready data on how many people referred to the Home Office-run National Referral Mechanism (NRM) are child rapists or threats to national security. 

The NRM is the Government’s system for alleged victims of modern slavery to access support and have their claims assessed. 

The allegation that child rapists and threats to national security were ‘clogging up’ the modern slavery system has been used to justify clauses in the Nationality and Borders Act that make it easier to deny help to potential victims, including those accused of crimes. 

As recently as last week, when new figures on the increase of trafficking victims were published, the Home Office said it was committed to tackling modern slavery while insisting “we must also tackle any abuse in the system which has contributed to decision-making taking far too long, at the detriment to those who are genuinely in need”. 

But the scale of this abuse has not been quantified. 

The request submitted by the Byline Intelligence Team asked how many individuals referred to the NRM since 2017 had later been charged with offences related to child rape and threats to national security. 

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In response, the Home Office said “the cost of meeting your request would exceed the cost limit” as it would involve “a manual trawl of all casefiles”. 

That the data on abuse of the NRM by serious criminals is not available in an easily retrievable format raises serious questions about the evidence on which Patel based her claims.

It also raises concerns about the evidence used to justify making serious changes to the laws around modern slavery – including changes to the treatment of victims who have committed crimes as part of their exploitation and viewing late disclosure of evidence as damaging a potential victim’s credibility.

“The Nationality and Borders Act has completely decimated support for some of the most vulnerable in society, including trafficking victims, who will now be robbed of help due to delays in opening up about abuse, or even the victims’ offending history,” Maya Esslemont, director of After Exploitation, said in response to the findings.

“It is deeply concerning that such drastic and controversial measures have been passed on the basis of flimsy, if not non-existent, evidence.”


The State of Modern Slavery

The number of trafficking victims has increased by one-third in the past year, with nine in 10 people referred to the NRM found to be genuine victims. Referrals for the period April to June 2022 was 4,171 – the highest number recorded since the mechanism was introduced in 2009.

This is part of a continuing pattern – between 2017 and 2020 the number of referrals to the NRM of alleged victims of modern slavery doubled. In response to the increase the Government appeared to claim that more people were abusing the system – as opposed to there being a rise in victims or even a sign that the NRM was working.

The data prompted the Home Office to announce changes so that “child rapists, people who pose a threat to our national security, serious criminals and failed asylum seekers will find it harder to take advantage of modern slavery safeguards”. The press release that accompanied the announcement was headlined: ‘Alarming Rise of Abuse within the Modern Slavery System’.

But nowhere in the press release was the scale of this “alarming rise” made clear – except by saying that more people were being referred to the NRM. The press release also confirmed that, between 2017 and 2020, 89% of those referred received a positive initial decision – suggesting that the vast majority of referrals were genuine victims.

For Maya Esslemont, the Home Office’s response to the FOI request “demonstrates that the Government cannot evidence their own arguments for the restriction of survivor support”.

They told Byline Times that FOI responses received by After Exploitation “completely contradict the Government’s claims that the trafficking system is being abused”.

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“In fact, eight in 10 rejected trafficking cases are overturned in the survivors’ favour,” they said. Almost all of the data we’ve obtained via FOI, often after lengthy battles with the Home Office, shows that more survivors, not fewer, should be accessing support than are currently.”

If the Home Office is unable to easily quantify the “alarming rise” and does not have readily retrievable data to show how many child rapists and threats to national security are abusing the system, it makes it incredibly difficult to know what evidence has been used to back up the bold statements made by the Home Secretary that have been used to shape policy. 

A Home Office spokesperson told Byline Times that it is “committed to tackling the heinous crime of modern slavery and in the UK we have a world-leading system to support those who are genuine victims”.

“Individuals who pose a threat to public order can rightly be excluded from the protections of the National Referral Mechanism, as a result of the introduction of the Nationality and Borders Act 2022,” they said. “The Government will continue to work to protect genuine victims, whilst ensuring the safety of the general public.”

They did not explain what data Priti Patel had used to justify her claims that the system was being abused by child rapists and threats to national security and informed Byline Times that serious criminals would be disqualified from support on a case-by-case basis, but did not confirm how many serious criminals were “abusing” the system. 

A second FOI request to the Ministry of Justice to discover how many victims of slavery or trafficking have used the Section 45 defence – a defence for slavery or trafficking victims who commit an offence – between 1 April 2015 and 30 June 2022 was also refused on cost grounds. 

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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