Skip to main content

Modern Slavery National Referral Mechanism: Waiting Times

Volume 838: debated on Monday 13 May 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to reduce waiting times for ‘conclusive grounds’ decisions under the National Referral Mechanism for modern slavery.

My Lords, the Government remain committed to ensuring that victims are identified promptly. We have taken steps to shorten the timelines for making decisions in the national referral mechanism, including new guidance for making reasonable grounds decisions, changes to the online referral form and setting timescales for information to be provided to the competent authorities. We have also significantly increased staffing for the competent authorities and are seeing the results through increased output of decisions.

I thank the Minister for that Answer. The median waiting time for conclusive grounds decisions in 2023 was 526 days but, for women, the median waiting time rose to 904 days, nearly double that for the whole group. This has a negative impact on them, their families and their children, and it makes it very difficult for swift enforcement action to be taken against perpetrators. What assessment have the Government made of why this discrepancy is so large and what steps are they taking urgently to reduce waiting times for women?

I thank the right reverend Prelate for that question. We are working to improve the timeliness of all decisions from all angles. That includes increasing the capacity for decision-making, testing alternative approaches, improving the quality of the information provided as part of the decision-making process, and reducing opportunities for misuse. The statistics are trending in the right direction. In the past two years, almost 30,000 people have had access to the protections of the NRM. Last year, 9,825 conclusive grounds decisions were issued, the highest number since the NRM began. In the first quarter of this year, 5,161 reasonable grounds decisions and 3,893 inclusive grounds decisions were issued, far higher than in any other quarter since the NRM began.

I apologise; I should have addressed that. I do not know the precise reason for those discrepancies, but I will look into the details and come back to the noble Lord.

My Lords, I declare that I am co-chair of the parliamentary group on modern slavery and vice-chair of the Human Trafficking Foundation. Can the Minister say how the NRM will deal with potential victims of modern slavery when the Illegal Migration Act is in force?

These are discussions that we have had at considerable length over the past few months. When the IMA is commenced, its modern slavery provisions will strengthen the UK’s continued efforts to mitigate risks to public order by withholding modern slavery protections from those who enter the UK illegally and who therefore put themselves and first responders at risk and place acute pressure on public services. Where someone has entered the UK illegally and is identified as a potential victim of modern slavery, we will ensure that they are either returned home or sent to another safe country, and away from those who have trafficked them.

My Lords, I declare my interest as the chairman of the Human Trafficking Foundation. Home Office figures for 2023 include bad faith disqualifications, where someone has been disqualified from protection because the referral or claim was made in bad faith. As it appears that there were zero bad faith disqualifications last year, can my noble friend the Minister say what the evidence is for the claim we hear that the NRM is being abused?

The public order disqualification is part of the Nationality and Borders Act, which has also been discussed extensively from this Dispatch Box and over a number of debates. It provides a definition of public order which makes it operationally possible to withhold the recovery period in certain circumstances, in line with Article 13 of the European Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings. All decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.

My Lords, can the Minister explain why the last annual report on modern slavery, as required by the Modern Slavery Act, was published in 2021? When will the Government publish the next annual report? Would that not help us to understand the statistics?

My Lords, I have already highlighted that a lot of statistics have been published. I do not know specifically when the next report is due to be published, but I will find out.

My Lords, will not the new provisions that the Government introduce make it less likely that witnesses come forward? Will that not be welcomed by traffickers, who will see it as an easy way of not getting caught?

My Lords, does the Minister not recognise that delays with the NRM leave potential victims without the security that they would otherwise have and—following on from the last question—make them more open to further exploitation and re-trafficking? Does he also recognise that many victims of trafficking are British citizens?

What I recognise is that this is very complicated. Referrals into the national referral mechanism are made by a number of public authorities, including the police, local authorities and so on, as well as non-governmental organisations. Then, one of the two competent authorities takes a look and makes an initial reasonable grounds decision, following which a potential victim is entitled to a minimum 30-day recovery period, unless there are grounds to disqualify them from that entitlement. The recovery period lasts until a conclusive grounds decision is made. These cases are very complex. In many cases, there is insufficient evidence and information in the referral form, so the competent authorities must consider all the information available to them and request it from various other authorities over which they have little or no operational control, and they do not have investigatory powers. This is extraordinarily complicated, but of course I recognise the victims’ distress.

My Lords, the Minister must have had in mind the Salvation Army when he was talking about non-governmental agencies. Over the past 13 years, it has dealt with over 22,000 cases that it has referred to the national referral mechanism. Yet, in data that it has produced, it points out that the delays have risen from the very modest five-day target in 2023, which was often realised, to 47 days now. It also says that there are technical deficiencies with the NRM. Will the Minister agree to meet senior officials from the Salvation Army to discuss the practicalities and issues arising as a result of the delays?

Yes, I am very happy to do so. The Salvation Army deserves great credit, because it is contracted to offer a lot of the services that are delivered via the NGOs to the victims.

My Lords, as the Minister has said, assessments to identify and support victims of trafficking, for whom any delay is harmful, can be complex and time-consuming. How many children are involved in the increasing backlog, either as victims themselves or as the children of victims? Do cases involving children receive any priority—and, if so, how?

Of course, there are a lot of age-disputed cases in the system, so it is difficult to give the noble Lord a precise answer on that. There are decision-making pilots for children which are much quicker at making decisions. They are taken through a multi-agency structure of the local authority, health and police as a minimum. The safeguarding partners have a responsibility to obtain and present evidence at meetings where decisions are taken, so they are dealt with slightly differently.

My Lords, this morning in the High Court in Belfast, a judgment disapplied certain elements of the Illegal Migration Act as they contravened Article 2 of the Windsor Framework. What assessment does the Minister, who brought the legislation through this House, have of that judgment?

My Lords, the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre’s paper on the 2023 national referral mechanism statistics notes with some concern that the data raises

“significant questions over the decision-making process”

as a result of changes to the statutory guidance that came in in January 2023 and not changes in the number of likely victims of modern slavery. Can the Minister say that the systems do not put victims of modern slavery at further risk?

I go back to an earlier answer I gave, that these are extraordinarily complex cases and, therefore, the guidance has to be refined in light of those cases periodically. I do not know to what specifically the noble Baroness is referring but, as far as I am aware, it does not make it any more complicated.

My Lords, I should have referred to my interest as a trustee of the Human Trafficking Foundation, as laid out in the register, at the beginning of my question. I apologise for that.