Thousands of victims of modern slavery have not come forward of because of doubts about the support they will receive, according to MPs.
At the same time the number of successful prosecutions under the Modern Slavery Act has been “hugely disappointing” despite their upward trend, according to a report by the Work and Pensions Committee. The report said a lack of support left victims that give evidence against perpetrators “destitute” and created the “inexcusable scenario that abusers go free”.
Committee chairman and Labour MP Frank Field said there was a “shocking lack of awareness and co-ordination in the front line services dealing with modern slavery”.
“Our response seems almost lackadaisical, a paper exercise earning you recognition as having been enslaved, which then entitles you to almost nothing,” he added, referring to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM). “We don't even record instances where the same person is thrown back into this hell, even though that is surely the clearest sign of the failures in our response.”
In 2015, 289 modern slavery offences were prosecuted resulting in 113 convictions, the report said. In the same year to 3,266 people entered the NRM, of which 1,043 were confirmed to be victims.
A Home Office minister was quoted in the report as having said there was “no reason to expect a one-to-one correspondence” between the number of victims and prosecutions.
A failure to support victims testifying against their abusers was one of the reasons prosecution rates were low, the report said. The committee received evidence of victims disappearing after their time allowed in a safe house had ended, and of victims sleeping rough because councils would not re-home them after associates of their former abusers started harassing them.
Kevin Hyland, the anti-slavery commissioner, told the committee: “One of the best forms of intelligence and information is from the victims, and if we are continually letting them down, how are we ever going to get the prosecutions and the confidence of victims to come forward?”
The report, which was generally positive about the government’s ambitions to tackle slavery, was also critical of other areas of support for victims.
Unlike refugees, victims of modern slavery have no right to remain in the country, the report said. Victims were also treated differently depending on their country of origin and still have to take residency tests to access certain benefits. “It is absurd to expect victims of modern slavery to be able to prove they have been living and working in the UK if they have been enslaved,” it said.
The next government needs to develop a “mark two” stage of modern slavery policies focusing on the rehabilitation of victims, the report said.
The Home Office has not yet responded to a request for comment.
A spokesman for the Department for Work and Pensions said: “We thank the WPSC [Work and Pensions Select Committee] for their report into the support for victims of modern slavery. We will carefully consider its findings and respond fully in due course.”
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