A step towards sustained support: Response to Work and Pensions Committee report on victims of modern slavery

The Commons Work and Pensions Committee has just published its long-awaited report examining the impact of the Department’s policies and processes on victims of modern slavery in the UK. The report follows the Committee’s inquiry, launched in October 2016; and draws on the insights and recommendations put forward in oral evidence and written submissions from over 30 interested parties – including Hope for Justice. Hope for Justice UK legal director Phillipa Roberts explains more.

This report constitutes official recognition of many of the barriers that victims of modern slavery continue to face in accessing long-term support following their rescue/escape and identification. In addition to highlighting existing gaps in support, the Committee recommends changes to both Department for Work & Pensions (DWP) policy on modern slavery cases, and to the procedures and practices of frontline staff.

The report acknowledges that reform is necessary not only to better ensure a sensitive and ‘victim-focused’ system, but also to secure higher prosecution rates of those who commit trafficking and slavery offences, which often relies on the testimony of supported victims.

A ‘passport to support’ for victims

In line with the suggestions of Hope for Justice and others, the report recommends that CG decisions should entitle victims to leave to remain in the UK for at least 12 months, which then acts as a ‘passport to support’ by creating recourse to benefits.

The automatic grant of leave and recourse to public (DWP) funds would prevent the current ‘cliff-edge’ end to support faced by many victims at present – due to the delays in processing applications under the existing system of Discretionary Leave to Remain, and difficulties in (particularly EEA-national) victims establishing their entitlement to welfare assistance.

Other recommendations further complement the automatic access proposed. The Committee suggest exemption of those identified as victims of modern slavery from the Habitual Residence Test and temporary concessions regarding job-seeking conditions, used by the DWP to control initial and continued access to Jobseeker’s Allowance. At present, considerable time is spent by Hope for Justice’s UK caseworkers advocating for victims’ eligibility under these conditions.

As recognised in the report, such exemptions would also depend upon proper training for JobCentre staff; to ensure that the specific needs and entitlements of victims recognised in DWP policy are translated to practice.

Such reforms would align the protection afforded to modern slavery victims with that offered to other vulnerable individuals with experience of trauma – notably asylum seekers and victims of domestic violence – and in turn create a more suitable system of support.

Endorsement of Hope for Justice recommendation

As noted in the report itself, while reform within the DWP is central to improving victims’ continued stability, it constitutes only one part of the UK system that victims of modern slavery rely on during their recovery. Hope for Justice supports the Home Office’s commitment to review and reform of the National Referral Mechanism – the first system most victims will encounter post-identification, often when they are at their most vulnerable.

The conclusions of the Committee’s report represent an important step towards closing the gap in support for victims which remains following entry into force of the Modern Slavery Act 2015. Adoption of the proposed recommendations would secure the protections envisaged for victims in the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings 2005 CETS 197 and Directive 2011/36/EU on preventing and combating trafficking in human beings – necessary in the climate of uncertainty that follows the UK’s decision to leave the European Union.

Long-term support for victims must lie at the heart of the UK’s comprehensive approach to tackling modern slavery – in the Prime Minister’s words: “The great human rights issue of our time”. The calls in this new report for better understanding of the specific needs and vulnerabilities of victims in both DWP policy and practice are a welcome starting point.