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What is on the horizon for modern slavery policies and laws in the UK?

Modern Slavery PEC Policy Impact team’s Liz Williams and Dr Victoria Tecca analyse upcoming modern slavery laws and policy developments.

Published: 18th September 2023

As MPs returned to Parliament in the UK after the summer recess, it’s a good time to take stock on where things stand for modern slavery laws and policies in the UK. At the Modern Slavery PEC, we aim to improve the effectiveness of laws and policies on modern slavery by funding and supporting new research to provide independent, innovative and authoritative insight.

The Illegal Migration Act 2023 passed into law in July and represents a seismic shift in how the UK’s system to identify and support survivors of modern slavery, the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), will operate. Most concerningly, the Act provides for the denial of support, and for the detention and deportation or removal of people who are recognised to be potential victims of modern slavery who have arrived irregularly or who are not British and have been convicted in the UK of an offence and sentenced to a period of immediate imprisonment.

The analysis in our recently updated Explainer on the Illegal Migration Act finds that under this Act, thousands of potential victims of modern slavery will be denied protections, and this is likely to impact on their safety from traffickers and recovery from exploitation. The Act is very likely to reduce survivors’ willingness and ability to cooperate with authorities in criminal proceedings, which often plays a central role in successful prosecutions.

The experience of one individual with lived experience of modern slavery illustrates this well. In a piece written about the potential impacts of the legislation, she discusses that the support to which she was entitled upon entering the NRM was instrumental in her decision to support the prosecution of her trafficker. Under the new Act, she feared her ‘story could have ended very differently. In fact, my trafficker would still be walking the streets today’.

What happens next with the Illegal Migration Act?

At the time of writing, the UK Government has not set out a precise timeline for when the Act’s central provision, the ‘duty to remove’, will apply, stating this will be “rolled out in the coming months”, nor when the modern slavery provisions will be implemented. The ‘duty to remove’ aims to deter people from seeking asylum by removing people to ‘safe third countries’ or their home countries without assessing their asylum claim. The Act’s implementation timeline will be influenced by the outcome of the Supreme Court judgment on the lawfulness of the Government’s policy to relocate people to Rwanda, which is expected to hear the case from October 2023.

We can look back at what happened with the implementation of modern slavery provisions in the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 (NABA) to give us some insight as to what might happen next with the Illegal Migration Act. The first thing we can expect is that as the Act’s modern slavery provisions are implemented, the Home Office will publish updated modern slavery statutory guidance to set out much more detail about how things will work in practice. For the NABA, it was around nine months between Royal Assent of the legislation and updated statutory guidance being in place that implemented some of the modern slavery provisions.

As our Explainer highlights, there are several areas where further operational detail is needed in order to understand how some of the modern slavery measures will operate in practice and what the potential impacts of the Act will be for survivors. For example, the Government has said there will be exceptions for those co-operating with law enforcement, but how will people who have experienced exploitation be able to access and navigate these exceptions? Detailed statutory guidance will also help agencies such as police and local authorities better understand their roles and responsibilities, which is particularly important given concerns raised about local authorities’ capacity to implement the Act.

Secondly, the legal analysis that underpins our Explainer found that the Act’s modern slavery provisions are incompatible with international law, meaning we can anticipate there will be legal challenges via judicial review when the measures are implemented. This may include, for example, legal challenges to the position of not concluding the victim identification process by issuing conclusive grounds decisions through the NRM.

Depending on their outcome, legal challenges may affect how the Illegal Migration Act is implemented and might influence the government’s ability to give effect to its policy intent. We have seen legal challenges to the NABA’s modern slavery provisions, on the reasonable grounds decision-making guidance, and the public order disqualification. The former required the Home Office to withdraw and re-issue amended guidance on reasonable grounds decisions and the latter is still being considered by the courts.

Thirdly, once the Illegal Migration Act’s modern slavery provisions are implemented, we anticipate both government and independent organisations to generate and publish more data, information and insight about the impact these provisions are having on survivors and on wider systems to prevent modern slavery. With NABA, the Home Office has started to publish regular statistics, such as the number of people disqualified from support on public order grounds, and NGOs are collecting and publishing insights, such as the Human Trafficking Foundation’s report highlighting the challenges faced by survivors following the changes to NRM reasonable grounds decision-making.

At the Modern Slavery PEC, we are particularly interested in how data and evidence can enable independent assessment of the ways legislative provisions are operating – including whether they are meeting their stated policy objectives and any unintended consequences arising - especially ensuring meaningful inclusion of the perspectives of people with lived experience of modern slavery. We have already commissioned research to examine the impact of the NABA modern slavery provisions that were implemented in 2023. As we learn more about the Illegal Migration Act implementation plans and timelines, we are exploring what role Modern Slavery PEC-funded research could play in improving understanding of its impacts and implications.

Other developments

What else is on the horizon for modern slavery laws and policies in the UK over the next few months? The current Home Office Modern Slavery Victim Care Contract is due to end in June 2025 and the Home Office is developing a new policy model now for the future contracted service. Modern Slavery PEC research has highlighted that policies and programmes will be more effective if they involve meaningful survivor inclusion, and we believe that people who have lived experience are the real experts in initiatives which directly concern them, and are best-placed to advise on how to improve that system as it evolves.

We’ll soon be publishing a policy brief bringing together findings from several projects we’ve funded on survivor recovery and support, and we hope the insights will inform the new policy. Our brief will highlight the need to adopt survivor-informed definitions of recovery, the need to clarify people’s entitlements and remove barriers to accessing them and the need to reduce procedural delays and improve linkages between specialised modern slavery services and wider systems affecting survivors’ lives.

It is expected that the King’s Speech will take place in November 2023, which will set out the UK Government’s legislative agenda for the next Parliamentary session. The 2022 Queen’s Speech included plans for a Modern Slavery Bill focused on supply chains, survivor support and law enforcement tools, but this did not materialise and it remains to be seen whether this will make it into the King’s Speech. Our funded research has highlighted the ways in which government could amend existing transparency in supply chains legislation to make it more effective.

On the wider policy agenda, the UK Government’s plans to review and revise the 2014 Modern Slavery Strategy appear to be paused for now, and we’ve previously highlighted the need for a refreshed strategic approach that places greater emphasis on preventing harm in the first place. The Home Affairs Select Committee is expected to publish a report of its inquiry into Human Trafficking soon, which is likely to make a wide-ranging set of recommendations to the Government about how it addresses modern slavery.

And finally, disappointingly, the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner post has been vacant since April 2022, though the Government has indicated that the recruitment process to appoint a new Commissioner is at “an advanced stage”. The Commissioner role is important for sharing best practice and encouraging research into modern slavery and the Modern Slavery PEC looks forward to working with the new Commissioner when in post.

So, at the start of this new Parliamentary sitting, it is clear that the modern slavery policy landscape in the UK remains dynamic, but the changes to the modern slavery survivor identification and support system introduced by the Illegal Migration Act will continue to be a predominant focus for the UK Government. It is essential that the implementation and monitoring of this legislation is informed by evidence and the perspectives of those with lived experience.

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