Modern slavery referrals increase by 1,400% over five years

Referrals of suspected child victims of modern slavery made by councils in England have soared by 1,400 per cent in five years, according to recently released data. Latest statistics show the number of council referrals of suspected child victims of modern slavery in England to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) - the UK’s framework for referring and supporting victims - has risen from 127 in 2014 to 1,971 in 2019, a staggering increase of 1,452 per cent.

Local councils play a significant part in the fight against modern slavery, and the support offered to victims. Child victims are supported through council funded children’s services, while adult victims of modern slavery are eligible to enter the National Referral Mechanism and receive specialist support. To protect individuals during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Government agreed not to move people out of NRM accommodation during the height of the COVID-19 emergency, however this temporary measure is due to end in early August.

The rate of these child referrals increased by 71 per cent in a year alone, with the number of referrals in 2018 standing at 1,152. Children accounted for 91 per cent of all referrals (child and adults) made by councils in England in 2019. Councils account for a much smaller proportion of adult referrals into the NRM, but adult referrals by councils in England have risen by 579 per cent in five years, from 28 in 2014 to 190 in 2019, and by 81 per cent in the past year, from 105 in 2018.

Estimates of the number of victims of modern slavery in the UK range from 13,000 to more than 130,000, with the overall costs to UK society of modern slavery estimated to be between £3.3 billion and £4.3 billion.

The Local Government Association (LGA) has said that these increases in numbers have put the system under significant strain, putting huge pressures on children’s services. No specific funding is given to councils to support the increasing number of modern slavery victims, who may have suffered terrible abuse, been forced to live in squalor and, in the case of many adult victims, paid appallingly low wages as a result of exploitation by criminal gangs.

The LGA has raised concerns that the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions could lead to more exploitation as businesses reopen, as some may lack money to pay staff wages and others take advantage of people who have been made more vulnerable by the pandemic. It says the closure of other businesses, such as nail bars, has left trafficking victims further away from the public eye and harder to identify and rescue. 

Cllr Nesil Caliskan, Chair of the LGA’s Safer and Stronger Communities Board, said:

“Councils are determined to tackle the wicked crime of modern slavery, which is a rising and almost invisible threat to our communities and can ruin the lives of vulnerable people.

“The spiralling rate of referrals, especially those relating to children, is having a huge impact on overstretched council services, particularly children’s services. The easing of coronavirus restrictions could lead to more people being exploited by unscrupulous businesses seeking to make up for lost income by breaching minimum wage laws.

“Government needs to ensure councils are properly funded in the long-term to tackle modern slavery and support its victims, as well as creating a future-proof NRM system able to support the growing numbers of victims we are seeing.

“Modern slavery is happening in local communities everywhere, with high street services such as car washes and nail bars being high risk sectors for exploitation. The public should look out for telltale signs, including people who may be dressed inappropriately for the work they are doing, or who appear frightened or withdrawn at work.  

“Everyone needs to report any suspicious behaviour to help rescue people living wretched lives under coercion.”