Suspected modern slavery victims are waiting a year and three months on average for a decision which could affect their circumstances in the UK, the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner has revealed.
Dame Sara Thornton said the delays were “unacceptable” and that the timeliness of decisions under the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) in England and Wales especially remains a significant concern.
Home Office figures published in her annual report show that suspected victims waited an average of 452 days before “conclusive grounds” decisions were made in 2019.
But she said she had met potential victims who had been waiting more than two years for a decision.
At the end of last year, there were 12,019 outstanding cases, a 75% rise on the number of unresolved cases during the first three months.
To access support and have recognition of their circumstances in the UK, victims of slavery and human trafficking have to be assessed under the NRM.
This determines whether, on the balance of probabilities, they have “reasonable grounds” for statutory access to medical, psychological and legal support, meaning they are considered potential victims.
They are then assessed again and, if considered to be a confirmed victim, given a “positive conclusive grounds” decision.
Dame Sara highlighted the impact of delays on victims’ wellbeing to ministers last October.
Campaigners have previously raised concerns about the number of suspected victims held in detention centres while their case is assessed.
She said she is also concerned about people not receiving the subsistence payments to which they are entitled, or access to work and education, and the “sudden cessation” of support once the NRM process is complete.
While more victims are being identified and helped, Dame Sara said systems still contain “too many weaknesses” and the Covid-19 outbreak has increased vulnerability to exploitation “in many ways”.
The use of offences under the Modern Slavery Act remains too low, she said, adding that “organised crime groups continue to see the rewards as high and risks as low”.
She also highlighted fears that efforts to end modern slavery could be “knocked back years” if governments prioritise economic recovery over human rights in their plans.
She wrote: “The pandemic has exacerbated the vulnerability of victims and survivors, created new vulnerabilities and disrupted organisations who support victims and those which bring offenders to justice.
“Many are concerned that work across the world to end slavery will be knocked back years as governments prioritise building economic activity above concerns for human rights.
“I hope that their worries are ill-founded because we know that the best businesses value people and planet, as well as profit.
“The pandemic is a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to reset and to build back better.
“I hope that we take it.”