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What the latest stats tell us about modern slavery in the UK

Five takeaways from the 2021 NRM statistics. Blog by Policy Impact Manager Liz Williams.

Published: 8th March 2022

Last week the UK Home Office published statistics for the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) for 2021, the UK’s identification and support system for potential victims of modern slavery. Despite some limitations in measuring its prevalence, NRM statistics offer an insight into patterns of trends of modern slavery and how the overall system designed to address it is functioning.

We at the Modern Slavery PEC want to improve evidence about the nature and scale of modern slavery in the UK, so we think it’s worth giving the stats a closer look. Here are our five key takeaways:

1. The increase follows a long-term trend

12,727 potential victims of modern slavery were referred to the NRM in 2021, representing a 20% increase compared to 2020 (10,601).

The increase follows a long-term trend of year-on-year increases since 2009 when the system was founded, apart from last year where referrals were flat due to pandemic-related disruptions. Our analysis of the impact of Covid-19 on modern slavery highlighted how identification of potential victims of modern slavery appeared to be affected by the pandemic, and 2020 was the only year when the long-term increase trend was interrupted.

Considering that those formally identified are widely estimated to be only a fraction of true numbers of people affected, the fact that nearly thirteen thousand people were referred as potential victims of modern slavery in 2021 illustrates the urgency of the challenge we face in addressing this issue in the UK.

2. Duty to Notify reports' increase is worrying.

The Home Office received 3,190 reports of adult potential victims via the Duty to Notify process, a 47% increase from 2020.

The nearly 50% increase in adults referred under the ‘Duty to Notify’ process raises concerns about the way that the system of support is working. It means that over 3,000 people chose not to enter the NRM for Government support despite being identified as potential victims. As the figures only relate to victims identified by the authorities and not for example third sector organisations, this is not a full picture of those who decide not to enter the NRM.

We urgently need to know more about what deters people from entering the NRM and how we can improve the identification of people affected by modern slavery. We need to make sure that people are not left without relevant support, especially considering the risk of further exploitation. The Modern Slavery PEC is about to launch a call for further research to examine these issues.

3. Long term trends on nationality, age and forms of exploitation continue

When looking at the nature of cases referred into NRM, trends around nationality, age of potential victims and exploitation type are broadly similar to previous years.

The nature of modern slavery cases referred to the NRM continues to follow the same pattern as previous years. Around three-quarters of referrals continued to be for men and boys in 2021 (77%), similar to 2020 (74%) with half of all referrals for potential victims who claimed exploitation as adults in 2021 (50% compared to 48% in 2020). Referrals for labour exploitation continued to be the most common form of modern slavery identified overall for adult potential victims in 2021 (33%; 2,141), whereas child potential victims were most often referred for criminal exploitation (49%; 2,689). The three most common nationalities referred were UK, Albanian and Vietnamese nationals, in line with patterns from previous years. Over half of potential victims claimed exploitation took place in the UK only (58%) in 2021 compared to 63% in 2020.

The Home Office is currently reviewing the UK Government Modern Slavery Strategy. It is important that the revised strategy sets out how it will address the issues raised by the statistics.

4. The resource pressure on NRM grows

The NRM is under significant resourcing pressures, and these are likely to continue when proposed measures in the Nationality and Borders Bill are implemented.

The NRM depends on “Competent Authorities” in the Home Office making decisions about who is recognised as a victim of modern slavery. The statistics raise concerns about the pressure on resources within the NRM, with waiting times for receiving final decisions rising. In 2021, the median time taken from referral to the NRM and the final (conclusive grounds) decision was 448 days, compared to 338 days in 2020. Within the NRM system there are now 24,388 people who have received a positive reasonable grounds decision but are awaiting a final conclusive grounds decision.

The Home Office acknowledges these resourcing pressures – the statistical bulletin notes there have been “resource pressures within the SCA [Single Competent Authority] and a subsequent reduction in capacity as the SCA onboards and trains many new staff.” It is important that the Home Office sets out how it is intending to address capacity, especially as the Competent Authorities will have an even greater workload to implement the measures within the Nationality and Borders Bill.

For example, the Bill proposes introducing Slavery and Trafficking Information Notices, which may require people with asylum or other human rights claims to disclose information relevant for a trafficking decision by a particular deadline. The Modern Slavery PEC has previously highlighted that this could result in a higher number of NRM referrals overall, as there might be an increased likelihood that by actively asking for information, indicators of modern slavery will be identified more frequently.

5. We need a more detailed analysis

Overall, we need a much more detailed analysis to know the true scale and nature of modern slavery in the UK, how this varies across the country, and how these patterns are changing over time. The NRM statistics provide an important source of data for building the robust evidence required to develop a more effective and comprehensive response.

We’re glad to see that, in line with previous Modern Slavery PEC recommendations, the Home Office has made much more NRM data available in the UK Data Service portal, so researchers can carry out their own independent analysis. We also welcome the commitment to publish data on decisions taken by the Immigration Enforcement Competent Authority in quarterly NRM statistical bulletins.