UK ‘failing’ in legal duty to provide compensation for modern slavery victims

UK governments are failing in their legal duty to ensure victims of modern slavery and human trafficking can access compensation to help them rebuild their lives, a leading charity has warned.
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The Council of Europe – a human rights body separate to the EU of which the UK is a member – obligates the Government to ensure slavery and trafficking victims can access compensation both from exploiters and the state.

The UK Government’s modern slavery strategy also underlines a commitment to compensation provision, noting it “can be very important in a survivor’s recovery”.

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But a probe by the JPIMedia Investigations team has found evidence victims right across the UK are being denied the chance to recoup damages.

File image (Picture: Shutterstock)File image (Picture: Shutterstock)
File image (Picture: Shutterstock)

A freedom of information request to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority (CICA), the Government-sponsored programme of redress for victims in England, Wales and Scotland, has revealed the vast majority of applications by slavery survivors are unsuccessful.

The body received at least 254 applications from people who said they were modern slavery survivors between 2015 and 2020. But only between 24 and 56 awards were made in that time.

Where there were five or fewer awards in a single year the figures are suppressed to protect anonymity, so an exact number is not available. CICA added its figures cannot show the applications were directly due to a victim’s trafficking experience.

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A similar request to the Northern Ireland Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme (NICICS) shows not a single slavery or trafficking victim has been compensated since 2015, despite nine applications. Two are still awaiting a decision.

Tamara Barnett, director of the Human Trafficking FoundationTamara Barnett, director of the Human Trafficking Foundation
Tamara Barnett, director of the Human Trafficking Foundation

Tamara Barnett, director of the Human Trafficking Foundation, says the UK is failing to meet its Council of Europe obligations.

“Our compensation system is terrible actually, it’s just really disgraceful,” she told JPIMedia.

“The system is painful. It’s really arduous. These people have literally been exploited unpaid for years and their futures are often really affected, their chances, so the lack of justice around compensation is really painful.

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“It just seems like such a core element, when so much money is involved in trafficking.

An Unbroken Chain: Modern Slavery in the UKAn Unbroken Chain: Modern Slavery in the UK
An Unbroken Chain: Modern Slavery in the UK

“Sexual and labour exploitation is all about money. It’s really painful that victims don’t ever see that money come back to them.”

The 2015 Modern Slavery Act also created Slavery and Trafficking Reparation Orders, a new penalty that requires perpetrators to compensate their victims.

Courts in England and Wales must consider imposing an order when convicting someone for modern slavery offences, and explain their decision if they do not make one.

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The Ministry of Justice rejected a freedom of information request for data on the use of the orders, arguing the information was held directly by courts, not centrally.

That is despite a recommendation in the 2019 Independent Review of the Modern Slavery Act that the Government should ensure it collects these figures to monitor the legislation’s impact.

Unpublished National Crime Agency data accessible to the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner shows there had been 26 orders issued by August 2019 – a fraction of the 74 convictions secured under the 2015 Act as of the end of that year.

Northern Ireland’s 2015 Human Trafficking and Exploitation Act also created Slavery and Trafficking Reparation Orders, but a freedom of information request to the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service reveals none have been issued to date.

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Scottish slavery legislation from 2016 did not create an equivalent, with the Scottish Government saying that existing compensation orders could be used in trafficking cases.

A request to the Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service shows between one and four such orders have been granted in trafficking cases between 2015 and 2020.

The Scottish Government told JPIMedia there had been three convictions as of 2018-19, while more recent cases have seen trafficking gang members face guilty verdicts.

CICA deals with people who have been physically and mentally injured by violent crime.

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Offences under the Modern Slavery Act are classified as ‘violence against the person’ in Home Office crime data.

But campaigners have argued the scheme is failing to recognise the psychological injuries victims present with, and the way criminals use threats of violence to control people.

A report in November by the Anti-trafficking and Labour Exploitation Unit charity concluded CICA was wrongly rejecting victims who have not suffered physical harm and was “not fit for purpose”.

Ms Barnett said the definitions used by CICA needed to be broadened.

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“They have a really quite high threshold around what’s required and modern slavery often doesn’t quite fit,” she said. “The thresholds don’t recognise crimes like modern slavery at all well.”

The charity Hope for Justice, whose Independent Modern Slavery Advocates (IMSAs) help victims access compensation, said CICA’s focus on violence “misunderstands the reality of modern slavery and the coercive and manipulative methods of control used by traffickers”.

Ellie Russell, the charity’s UK advocacy manager, said there was a lack of reliable data about compensation.

“However, if the experiences of those supported by our IMSAs are representative then the vast majority of victims who deserve and need financial compensation to aid their recovery are currently unable to access it,” she said.

“The situation must change.”

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When approached for comment, the Ministry of Justice did not address concerns about access to compensation.

A spokesperson said it was “committed to tackling the heinous crime of modern slavery and ensuring victims are provided with the support they need”.

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