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Four things we’ve learned from the 2023 NRM stats

Policy Impact Team’s Liz Williams and Victoria Tecca take a closer look at the UK’s 2023 modern slavery statistics.

Published: 13th March 2024

On 7th March, the Home Office published the 2023 statistics for the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the UK’s identification and support system for potential victims of modern slavery. The data gives us an insight into the population of people who are encountered by ‘first responder organisations’ as potential victims of modern slavery, and how the Home Office-led system to identify and support them is functioning.

It’s important to note that the NRM statistics don’t give us a full picture of what modern slavery looks like in the UK: not everyone affected by modern slavery will be identified and referred into the NRM. Around a third (36%) of people referred to the NRM in 2023 stated they were exploited overseas, not in the UK. This latter group is still eligible for the protections of the NRM, because under international law, the UK has obligations to identify and support every potential victim of modern slavery.

Here are our four key takeaways:

1. The number of people referred to the NRM in 2023 – 17,004 – was the highest ever, but broadly similar to last year, ending a trend of year-on-year increases.

2023 saw a record high for the number of people referred into the NRM (17,004), starkly demonstrating the scale of identified exploitation. However, this figure was broadly similar to the total number of people referred in 2022 (16,921). Since 2014, there have been year-on-year increases in the number of NRM referrals (apart from between 2020 and 2021, thought to be linked to the effects of the Covid pandemic).

It's not fully clear why the number of referrals plateaued between 2022 and 2023. The profile of referrals remained similar to 2022, though with some exceptions. For example, the number of women and girls referred increased by 12%, from 3,634 in 2022 to 4,088 in 2023, their highest ever volume. Meanwhile, the volume of referrals for exploitation overseas dropped by 9% in 2023.

It’s important to consider these statistics in the context of recent immigration legislation in the UK that will deny support to certain groups of people affected by modern slavery: the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, and the Illegal Migration Act 2023. Without more comprehensive statistical analysis and qualitative research, it’s not possible to pinpoint a causal link between this legislation and NRM trends. Evidence shows that the new legislation could have a big impact on the willingness of some survivors to come forward and be formally identified or support criminal prosecution.

More analysis is needed: especially that which encompasses the perspectives and experiences of people affected by modern slavery,as well those involved in the NRM, including Home Office caseworkers and First Responders.

2. The number of adults refusing consent to enter the NRM is the highest ever.

In 2023, 4,929 adults were referred under the ‘duty to notify’, which is a process for First Responders to submit referrals for potential adult victims who do not give consent to enter the NRM. Exploring the reasons why adults encountered by First Responders are increasingly declining NRM referral is key to understanding how to improve the NRM referral process, so that it better meets survivors’ needs.

Our recently published research (carried out by BIICL and the Human Trafficking Foundation) went some way to explain the reasons for this. In Duty to Notify forms from 2020/21 where at least one reason was recorded, the most common reason stated was that the person denied the exploitation experience or victim status and/or stated that the NRM didn’t apply to them (23%), followed by wanting to put the experience behind them (14%) or being afraid of the traffickers (10%).

"The findings highlight that the NRM system appears to be under strain and not functioning effectively, with delays in receiving decisions, a rise in requests for Home Office NRM reconsiderations and an increase in adults declining referral."

Worryingly, the research revealed that some people with lived experience of modern slavery were referred into the NRM without their consent, felt compelled to consent, were not given enough information to consent meaningfully, or were under the impression that entering the NRM involved a requirement to collaborate with the police.This was a one-off analysis of data provided by the Home Office covering 2020/21 only. The data needs to be collected consistently to understand why so many people are increasingly declining referrals.

3. The 2023 statistics raise significant questions over the decision-making process, with a drop in positive decisions, growing reconsideration requests and increased delays.

When someone is referred to the NRM, Home Office caseworkers begin a two-stage decision-making process to determine whether they will be recognised as a victim of modern slavery (victim status). The first decision is whether there are ‘reasonable grounds’ to believe that the referred individual is a victim of modern slavery, enabling them to access specialised NRM support. The second stage decision is made on ‘Conclusive Grounds’, confirming the ‘victim of modern slavery’ status.

Of people for whom decisions were made in 2023, 55% received a positive Reasonable Grounds decision, compared to 88% in 2022. Data is not published on reasons why people are issued negative Reasonable Grounds decisions, but reasons may include someone not meeting the definition of modern slavery, a lack of credibility, or not meeting the Reasonable Grounds threshold.

Another concerning issue is the further increase in decision-making delays, already a big problem. According to guidance, Reasonable Grounds decisions should be made within five working days of referral where possible, but the average (median) waiting time for Reasonable Grounds decisions jumped from six days in 2022 to 26 days in 2023, with the likely effect of delaying access to support for those entitled to receive it.

There was also a large number of requests to the Home Office for it to reconsider NRM decisions, with a high proportion of decisions overturned. In 2023, there were 888 reconsideration requests made to the competent authorities (both RG and CG). 60% (400) of reasonable grounds decisions which were reconsidered received a positive outcome. For conclusive grounds decisions, 64% (89) of those reconsidered were positive.

This has happened against the backdrop of the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 (NABA), which triggered changes to the modern slavery statutory guidance that caseworkers use when making decisions. In January 2023, this was changed to state that Reasonable Grounds decisions would be based on ‘objective factors’ going forward. Following a legal challenge, the guidance was withdrawn and replaced in July 2023, removing this evidentiary requirement.

Although the statutory guidance was revised and re-issued several times throughout 2023, the rate of positive reasonable grounds decisions remained fairly consistent each quarter (60% in Q1, 50% in Q2, 53% in Q3 and 55% in Q4). This raises interesting questions about the longer-term impacts of legislative changes and their interaction with policy and practice.

Some of these questions will be explored by forthcoming research commissioned by the Modern Slavery PEC examining the impacts of NABA on the identification and wellbeing of people with lived experience of modern slavery in the UK.

4. There were no cases of people being disqualified from the NRM on bad faith grounds, but over 300 people disqualified on ‘public order’ grounds in 2023.

The modern slavery statutory guidance states that an individual is considered for disqualification on bad faith grounds if they – or someone acting on their behalf such as a solicitor – is deemed to have “knowingly made a dishonest statement in relation to being a victim of modern slavery”. As such, the bad faith disqualification was designed to identify cases where individuals were making false claims to ‘abuse’ the modern slavery system.

Since its introduction in 2023, no bad faith disqualifications have been made or requested by the Competent Authorities.

On the other hand, there were 331 confirmed disqualifications on public order grounds in 2023 (out of 443 requests). The majority (251 or 76%) were disqualified in the first half of the year. This is because public order disqualifications were paused from 31 July until the end of the year, following the outcome of a legal challenge.

Expectedly, the proportion of all disqualifications made by the Immigration Enforcement Competent Authority (65%) is significantly higher than the proportion of NRM referrals they consider (19% in 2023). The IECA is responsible for making NRM decisions for foreign nationals who have been convicted of an offence, people in immigration detention, and other groups whose circumstances mean they’re more likely to meet the public order definition. However, a lower proportion of disqualification requests in 2023 resulted in a disqualification for IECA cases (71%), than for those made by the Single Competent Authority (83%), which deals with all other cases. In the absence of additional data or research examining these differences, the reasons for this variation are unclear.

Taken overall, the findings highlight that the NRM system appears to be under strain and not functioning effectively, with delays in receiving decisions, a rise in requests for Home Office NRM reconsiderations, and an increase in adults declining referral. Over time, the Home Office has published more detailed breakdowns of NRM data in both quarterly statistical bulletins, and on the UK Data Service platform. We welcome this increased transparency - it has enabled researchers and NGOs to explore trends and patterns and scrutinise how the NRM is operating.

At the Modern Slavery PEC, we will continue to examine this data and make recommendations to government about collecting and publishing further data; for example on the reasons for negative NRM decisions.

In the meantime, at our recent lunchtime seminar, Dr Patrick Burland of IOM-UK shared some insights gleaned from analysing NRM data over a longer period of time. You can watch the recording of his presentation below or on our YouTube channel.